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Anthony Doerr takes the pre off the dictable with a talk on defamiliarization and how its usage in art can alter our perception of the known world.
Like the best of his writing, Doerr’s 2008 Summer Workshop lecture ends up being more than just a display of craft: It’s a blueprint for life itself.
There was a time in my mid-twenties when I came to believe that everyone in our family, including my brother Eliot, would be better off if Eliot were dead. I loved him dearly. That was not the point. Dark-haired and dark-eyed in a family of fair-haired people predisposed to good cheer, Eliot was a perfect character to me, and I loved him exactly as one loves a book character whose days are so obviously numbered.
Once—this is just a single example—Eliot interrupted our dinner chatter to say, “I have discovered my nature, and it is the saturnine nature of the melancholic.” He was six years old. We cheered and laughed, because we had no idea what he was talking about. Philip, the oldest and most beloved within our family, liked to say that Eliot was possessed by the spirit of an eighteenth century consumptive. Eliot’s announcement did nothing to dispel his belief. I myself was four years older than Eliot and kept a reasonable emotional distance, thinking of him less as a family member than as a sort of deranged but entertaining pet, one that for example chases imaginary flies to exhaustion, or howls beneath a streetlamp she imagines to be the moon—amusing, but best to avoid getting too attached.
The summer after Eliot ran off with Greenpeace or maybe the Peace Corps, I found myself quite unconscionably thinking about things, for no good reason. This included Eliot and his melancholic disposition. It puzzled me and I wanted to solve the puzzle. I began to wonder—on sleepless nights as I lay beside some nameless whore; in a stoned haze as I stared up at the sky from my city balcony; in the bleary tender moments upon waking up beside Philip’s wife—if there wasn’t a solution after all. And so I imagined one. The news of the illness borne through the phone line. The sense of rupture within the family, the depth of which surely no one would find more surprising than Eliot himself. The late-night confessional phone calls, begging for a catharsis denied. The absolutely epic bedside vigil. The family’s great coming-together in the ancestral home, and the beginnings of a gorgeous reimagining of Eliot’s history. And Eliot himself, finding validation and the love and attention he must always have craved. And then death! to carry him above it all. Now thou dost dismiss thy servant, etc. Or at least not to be, which was also to be above it all at last: triumphant.
Oh, how I wanted to call him at that moment!
The years passed. We were all scattered by the time I heard the news. “We are not all scattered,” said Philip, but I was already hanging up the phone. Because he couldn’t understand. He’d never understood. I rested my face against the cool stone tile of the veranda, and I thought about my brother, my brother, who was gone.
Tom Howard’s fiction has appeared in The Cincinnati Review, Booth and Willow Springs, and individual stories have received the Willow Springs Fiction Prize, the Robert and Adele Schiff Award in Fiction, the Masters Review Short Story Award, and the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction. He’s in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and lives with his wife in Arlington, Virginia.
Tin House invited a select number of early readers to read After James, a new novel by critically-acclaimed author Micheal Helm. Set in great cities, remote regions, and deadly borderlands, the story is told in three parts, each gesturing toward a type of genre fiction: the gothic horror, the detective novel, and the apocalyptic. For fans of Joshua Cohen and Ben Lerner, After James captures the dystopian strangeness of our current world. Enough about what we think—we surveyed Tin House Galley Club members, and here’s what they had to say.
Michael Helm is the author of the novels Cities of Refuge, a Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize finalist, a Giller Prize nominee, and a Globe and Mail Best Book of the Year; The Projectionist, a finalist for the Giller Prize and the Trillium Book Award; and In the Place of Last Things, a finalist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. His writings on fiction, poetry, and the visual arts have appeared in several North American magazines, including Brick, where he’s an editor. He teaches at York University in Toronto and lives in semirural Ontario.
Please Don’t Feed the Spirit Animals
I saw a pair of mechanical polar bears
getting it on at the Vienna Prater. It was
unexpected—his bucking her from behind
while I slid by unobserved in a no-rail
cart. Knees to my chin, bar low and tight
across my lap, I dropped the fake
camera I’d been instructed to use.
They were polar bears in everything
but spirit, I decided—or else all spirit,
no polar bear. I couldn’t know. Who
signed them up for this? Were these
exhibitionists in another life, banished
to a special circle of pseudo-Antarctic hell?
Or was this a celibate’s reward? Sex in heaven,
perpetual love-making, no threat of offspring.
A giant crab looked on from across the way.
And how was he supposed to feel,
lit up only by his own florescence?
Hannah Dow is a PhD student at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers, where she is an Associate Editor for Mississippi Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Harpur Palate, American Literary Review, and Spoon River Poetry Review, among others. She also received an honorable mention in the 2015 Intro Journals Project.
Gifted with a voice that could command an audience in any era, Dorothy Allison treated the participants of the 2011 Summer Workshop to a spirited discussion on how characters should speak on the page. Not only ‘he said, she said, none of them said a thing’, but a whole range of language issues–what is said and not said, dialect and rhythm, pacing, patterns in speech, and most importantly, the language of gesture and avoidance.
Yes, there was a bit of cursing involved in the lecture, but to be cursed at by Dorothy Allison is an experience to be treasured. Trust us, we have firsthand experience.
In our newest issue, Issue 69: Sex, Again?, we asked some of our favorite writers to describe some of their most awkward positions. The poet D. A. Powell was kind enough to respond with a rare foray into prose:
Remember when you could just walk up to someone on the street and have sex with them? Before even saying hello? Most relationships ended backward, and quickly, and though we know the streets to be rough, I’m sure some of us are still out there, quivering in the moonlight. I do not think of those profligate days as particularly glorious, but different. It was a different time, when the noodle bar used to be a hard-core bar, before the pharmacy expanded and annexed the trashy old dance palace. San Francisco had sex the way Louisiana has churches, abundantly and with as much true spirit. Porn ran up and down these blocks like marigolds, the scene a twenty-four-hour donut shop for the transient and sexually desperate. Muscly women, muscly men, bearded, hunky, slender, lithe, kinky, twinky, clean or stinky. Candor. Fetish. Outness. It was Playland at the Beach without the sand up your crack. (Everything else, though, that could fit.) Talk was minimalized by the thumping homegrown music conjugated by producers at Megatone Records or Moby Dick, a label named for the popular tavern where patrons pressed into each other close and hard like a big box of matches waiting for just enough friction to be lit. We danced to the driving pulse of tracks like “Mandatory Love” and “Cruisin’ the Streets” and “Die Hard Lover,” songs that exploited and exposed the language of homo desire. At the Jackhammer, the Pendulum, the Headquarters, the Shed—music, bodies, the relief and thrill of being reflected and surrounded by a world in which one need not explain oneself. Untenable for the long term. Oh, but it seemed such a short-term life.
We lived illegal, illegitimate, marginalized in and by our own country, unprotected in every way. Any film that portrayed a serious homosexual told us we’d die; it was the code of a movie industry many of us loved that we would not be permitted happiness on-screen (or off), lest our form of sexual desire spread like a pod from outer space or werewolfism. It did not help that we acquired immune deficiency within our community, that the public treated homosexuality like an illness we all had to prevent from spreading. I speak of the past as a complex of repressive forces so powerful that simply to love felt like an act of rebellion. Sex was affirmation. Solidarity. It was proof that we were numerous and visible and therefore not an anomaly. Natural variants in a scale of genders and attractions, occurring across all the other spectrums of humanity. Sex was easy and communal, like when you pass a bottle of wine around at a picnic and fill strangers’ cups, too, because, hey, here we all are on the grass together.
But sex is just one kind of promiscuity. Poetry is another. Writing, in general, is the promiscuous use of language, and every writer or poet I know has started far more interactions with the page than ever saw the light of day. But it’s impossible to count the number of times we’ve kissed a new sunrise, turned to the scribble next to us on the nightstand and crumpled it up like a phone number we’ll never dial. I stop in the middle of writing this to open a package from Alex Dimitrov. I stop to read half of Honorée Jeffers’s The Glory Gets. I go to Lily Hoang and Marilynne Robinson. I’m listening to Sylvester, watching Rachel Maddow with the sound off and the closed captioning on (I prefer not to hear her voice but I want her ideas), and looking up the Cathy Park Hong essay everyone is talking about. Then Brecht’s love poems and Jamaal May. And this is all before breakfast. All these poems touch me in different ways, while I’m still in jammies; the essays penetrate me in ways I’ve never been penetrated before, and I am speaking tender words back to each writer. I am on the crowded dance floor of diction and it’s having its way with me. I run my fingers across sentences and lines, I finger and mouth each one of them, and sometimes I just lie there and listen and let the words take me.
I rarely finish what I write and I often don’t finish what I read. And don’t even ask me to get past the first paragraph of a relationship. I’m a good starter, though. I have joined the Twitter world, a perfect marriage of promiscuous interaction and lack of physicality. It is the divey cocktail bar of the imagination, where I can be stimulated in so many other ways—music, poetry, politics, science, news, quirky personalities. A dose of realness that can be ignored without dying on you, unlike, say, a cat. It is everything and nothing, like the present-day Castro neighborhood, a theater of liberation that has become so liberated that it no longer resembles itself except as a museum piece. I am glad to see we’ve been invaded by Starbucks and Pottery Barn—it means we are no longer in need of a fortress of identity and safety in numbers. I just hope that marriage freedom doesn’t become marriage expectation. There is no victory in a convention. What we fought for in these streets was not middle-class morality and well-behaved kids. We stood against the assumptions of heteronormativity, said yes with our hips, with our hearts, with our eyes. Made sexual play and sexual pleasure as easy and as enjoyable as poetry. If I belong anywhere and with anyone, it is everywhere and with everyone. Or at least as many as I have desire for. Of course I love being flirted with. But my drag name is no longer Clearance.
D.A. Powell‘s books include Repast and Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys, recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry. He lives in San Francisco.
Black Wave is a dystopic memoir-fiction hybrid forthcoming from Feminist Press.
Michelle had had her best celebrity sighting yet about one week ago, a life-changing experience. So far, the celebs at the bookstore had been impressive but minor. Alan Quartermaine from General Hospital came in with his boyfriend, oh yes, Michelle was sure, that was his boyfriend, Alan Quatermaine was gay! Michelle couldn’t believe she hadn’t realized that, all those years watching General Hospital in the 80s! She had much more respect for the actor. He played straight so convincingly.
Many shoppers had faces that nagged at Michelle. That was life in L.A. She had seen them, in commercials, speaking a single line on a sitcom, the silent villain in every movie ever, but she could not place them. She stared, but they probably liked that. All actors were narcissists, Kyle told her this. Kyle said that many non-narrcissistic actors were completely talented, but it took a narcissist’s particular and terrible skill set to make it in the industry. Michelle stared at a customer with unruly, black curly hair. She was on the verge from giving up when it came to her: Booger from Revenge of the Nerds! She phoned Joey at home to tell him.
That actor was on Moonlighting, too! He added.
Then Matt Dillon came in. Apparently, Matt Dillon came in all the time. He collected old rockabilly records. Beatrice kept a stack for him in the back room. Michelle had become obsessed with Matt Dillon at a young age, after watching him die in a hail of bullets in Over the Edge, a great 70s movie about disaffected youth shooting guns, having sex in unfinished suburban tract homes and lighting their school on fire. The obsession was stoked when he fucked Kristy McNichol in Little Darlings, and went totally haywire when he embodied all Michelle’s favorite characters in all her favorite S.E. Hinton books: The Outsiders, Tex, Rumble Fish. Michelle was crazed with him in Drugstore Cowboy. Any movie where Matt Dillon got shot was an amazing movie. He was the number one influence upon her sexuality, a bigger influence than queerness itself as everyone Michelle had ever been hot for resembled, in some vague way detectable only to her, Matt Dillon. And now he was in her store. And he wanted to talk to her. He had brought to the counter an ancient rockabilly record and asked her to play it on the turntable in the kiosk.
It looks good, no scratches, I just wanna make sure, he said in that lacksadasical voice, the voice of Dallas Winston in The Outsiders. Michelle’s hands were trembling. She got the record on the turntable without smashing it, though the needle was dropped into the groove a bit sloppily. She turned back to the register. Matt Dillon was leaned into the counter listening to the scratchy record, an old man’s voice and a shaky guitar. It sounded good, it sounded very old and unknown. Matt Dillon liked it. He smiled.
Let me see your tattoos, he commanded Michelle.
Like all tattooed females, Michelle went through the world dodging the grabby fingers of men who did not know how to look with their eyes, not with their hands. People reached out and stroked Michelle’s arms in ways they would never touch another stranger. The bounds of common courtesy and basic privacy were breached daily. Lemme see your ink, Douchebags would mumble, their hands already wrapped around her forearm. Nice tatt’. Nice ink. Or the grossest, Nice body art. It filled Michelle with rage. But this was Matt Dillon.
Michelle extended her arms and the actor seized them. Matt Dillon’s hands were upon her. He manhandled her limbs, twisting them to get better looks at each piece, flattering them with his attentions, studying even the crappiest among them – the faded word doubt scripted blurry on her wrist, the pokey tattoo a friend had given her with a needle and India ink. He particularly enjoyed the illustration of a young devil child peddling a Big Wheel up her shoulder.
That makes me think of that band, Gay Bikers On Acid, Matt Dillon smiled up at her. You know them? Michelle nodded, mute. Her personality, her thoughts and charisma had shrunk up inside her body like testicles dropped into cold water. Here was Matt Dillon, fondling her tattoos, making small talk, and she could not respond. Gay Bikers on Acid, he repeated. He swallowed, staring at her, his Adam’s apple dancing in his throat. There’s Lesbian Dopeheads on Mopeds, too, you heard of them? Michelle nodded. She had heard of them.
Michelle had the word ‘Lezzie’ tattooed on her shoulder, right above the devil child he’d been admiring. Michelle wanted to disclaim the Lezzie tattoo to Matt Dillon. Or, maybe she should flaunt it. You never knew with a guy. It didn’t matter anyway, Michelle was so unable to converse with Matt Dillon that he eventually dropped her arms and returned to the record bins in search of more obscure rockabilly, leaving Michelle alone at the kiosk to sink into a shame spiral about her clothes. She was wearing a pair of cut-off camouflaged pants for god’s sake, like a man, like a butch. Her t-shirt — armless, thank god — had the Nike swoosh with the directive RIOT above it. She had gotten it at an anarchist book fair. It was impressively punk, expressed an admirable impulse, but was it sexy? No. It was enormous on Michelle. She wore combat boots on her feet, boots she had idly scrawled stars over with a paint pen one night, bored and drunk in Stitch’s room. Her hair was crunchy, and blue. She had given herself bangs during a recent bout of PMS. The only time Michelle felt deep regret at not having a lover with her in her studio apartment was when she gave herself this haircut. A lover would have stopped her. The bangs of course looked awful. Michelle could look forward to the hair poking her in the eyeballs until she gave in and pinned them back like a small dog humiliated with hair accessories.
Michelle was powerfully hungover, as she was every morning, and she had picked her outfit blindly. She wore no makeup. What was she thinking? She lived in Hollywood. The most beautiful people in the entire world lived in Hollywood. People whose good looks commanded millions of dollars, people who then used those millions to become more beautiful still. Michelle had learned a valuable lesson: Do not leave the house unless you look ready to meet Matt Dillon. If she had looked cuter perhaps she would have had the confidence to speak to him. From thereon, each morning would look into the broken full-length mirror, found curbside in the Mission and lugged to Los Angeles. She would stare into its glass and asked herself: Am I ready to meet Matt Dillon? She would took the time to ring her eyes in kohl or stick a pair of earrings through the holes in her lobes, but it hardly mattered. She figured Matt Dillon would never return during one of her shifts. These sorts of things rarely happened twice.
Michelle Tea is the author of five memoirs: The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America, Valencia (now a film), The Chelsea Whistle, Rent Girl (illustrated) and How to Grow Up (Penguin/Plume), currently in development with Amazon Studios. Her novels include Mermaid in Chelsea Creek and Girl at the Bottom of the Sea, part of a Young Adult fantasy trilogy published by McSweeneys, and Rose of No Man’s Land. Forthcoming works include Black Wave Castle on the River Vistula, the final installment of the YA series, and Modern Tarot, a tarot how-to and spell book published by Harper Elixir.
One morning on a small harbor ferry heading to Granville Island she’d watched the boat taking its level with False Creek and felt a kind of weightlessness that seemed telling. Anja had asked if they could meet now, today, and as she’d taken the call Ali felt a flutter in her own voice. It would not be good news from the trial, of course, but that wasn’t what the voice and the weightlessness meant. They meant somehow that she was getting less sure of herself and generally less certain, not just to herself but to others, as if she’d become doubted by higher powers, harder to believe in. Her decision not to seek a pregnancy returned now and then in this way, eroding her supposed selfhood, something she anyway thought of only as a cluster of changing biological conditions. But even self-betrayal is betrayal, an ancient constant that never loses its effect.
They walked along the seawall. Anja’s news was that, switched to the placebo, through growing despair, Subject 11 had written less and less. The slowing made sense but she couldn’t tell him that his crisis of faith was chemical. Then last week, eighteen days before the trial was to end, he dropped out and disappeared. Anja needed to know that he hadn’t had a seizure, lost his memory or his mind, but he returned no calls or emails. When she went to the apartment he’d listed, she was told by a young landlady that he’d moved out, no forwarding address.
That morning at the clinic she’d received a small package in the mail, addressed to “Maker,” care of her. It was a box the size of a large basket of strawberries. They took a bench seat.
“What if he’s cut off his hand or something,” Anja said.
“He couldn’t have wrapped it so well with the other one. Maybe it’s fresh strawberries. It’s for me, I’ll open it.”
The box had weight but wasn’t metal-heavy, more fruit than cannonball. The hand-printed letters in the address looked sane, unhurried.
She opened it to find a glass ball the size of a grapefruit, inside of which was one of the plastic identity bracelets issued to test subjects, with bar-coded personal and vital information. He’d twisted the bracelet once and reattached it into a loop, then suspended the resulting möbius strip inside the clear ball.
It came with a typewritten note.
Are you there?
You’ve left me unfinished.
So I’ve left you and your pharma con.
I wanted, then needed what you were making of me.
But you weren’t up to the making.
This ball is all you get.
Take it and fuck off.
No other ending.
“That’s literally twisted,” said Anja. Her voice, though not yet her face, expressed relief. “But I practically expected a bomb.”
Ali held the object up against the water, the sky, the new ugly condos across the water. It maintained a sure beauty. Subject 11 had lost his faith, lost his sense of irony about their relative positions, lost his belief in her.
“He used to be charming,” said Anja. “You okay?”
That night Anja called her at home to say that when she’d quoted the note to her unemployed classicist husband, he’d found another twist.
“He says ‘pharma con’ is a pun on a Greek word.” Somewhere in Plato was a story about an Egyptian god who offers a king a remedy for forgetting, the pharmakon of writing, writing as a memory aid. The king turns down the offer, knowing it will have the opposite effect and cause forgetfulness. The king uses the same word, pharmakon, to mean poison. Remedy and poison. “One and both, so either, depending.”
The ball sat now on a small china plate on Ali’s dining table. Maybe mornings before work it would catch a little gray windowlight that might, in time, disarm it.
“So it isn’t just he thinks I conned him. He thinks I poisoned him.”
“I don’t know, Ali. I don’t see how.”
“Poisoned by loss. Withdrawn revelation. Before the trial he was happy knowing what he knew, seeing what he saw. Then he took the pills and saw more. Now he knows he’s blind to the real size and intricacy of things. He’s been poisoned with a knowledge of his blindness.”
“That sounds pretty grand, actually. You haven’t read the pages he sent me. He’s not some great visionary. He’s just a guy telling a story, and then we switched him to the placebo and he couldn’t finish it.”
When she asked Anja to describe the story, she said she’d put her husband on, said his name, Roland, who was better at these things.
“There’s nothing so original about it.” Ali remembered him now, his voice, a kind of high-snouted tone. “The usual horror themes and tropes. Violated Nature. Science and Art, fire and flood, madwomen and monsters. It clips along for a while but he never sent the ending.”
They forwarded the file that night. Ali read the first page. There was already a body, a gun going off, the usual dumb mystery, cheap violence. It settled her to know that the story was only an entertainment. If this was all the vision he’d had, all he’d lost, she’d done Subject 11 a favor, she thought. Four days later he was dead.
She went to Carl with the news. His house had a cedar porch that in damp weather smelled like a sauna. He invited her to sit on his fraying string chairs but she stayed on her feet. She couldn’t find the words at first and they ended up looking out at the neighbors’ lawns and houses in the soft focus. Even at plus two degrees the gray could get so thick you expected whales to float by. There hadn’t been sun for a week.
When she told him, he tried to come close but she held both palms out and took a step back.
“We have to stop the trial.”
“This has nothing to do with the trial. He wasn’t even on Alph.”
She knew the line was coming and had tried to prepare but she hit him anyway, slapped him hard. He actually bent over briefly and said fuck.
“Now we know who you are,” she said. “You’re the bad guy who plays the company angle.”
She hadn’t known she would slap him, and having done so felt it was dopey, not genuine, a mimicking behavior. Then she thought she should feel better but didn’t, especially. Maybe he wasn’t the bad guy but the guy who’d sampled the drug and was now a true believer. Either way he was dangerous. As she walked to her car he straightened but didn’t follow. He held one hand to his face where she’d reddened it, as if in thought.
“You’ve signed docs, Ali. Remember your legal position.”
Beside the steps was an unpruned rosebush. The drooped-headed blooms were chilled into, what, awkwardness? shame? Were they like kids staring at their feet? No, they were just blighted flowers. As she pictured them in memory now, a shadow grew over them and a whale passed by overhead.
Michael Helm is the author of the novels Cities of Refuge, a Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize finalist, a Giller Prize nominee, and a Globe and Mail Best Book of the Year; The Projectionist, a finalist for the Giller Prize and the Trillium Book Award; and In the Place of Last Things, a finalist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. His writings on fiction, poetry, and the visual arts have appeared in several North American magazines, including Brick, where he’s an editor. He teaches at York University in Toronto and lives in semirural Ontario.
was from the Musée d’Orsay: the bright, vaulted windows, gilded finishings, and me, smiling underneath. I thought I’d have time to see most of the museum before the kids’ school let out, but I moved too slowly among the impressionists, then had to hurry with the rest. I did stop for several minutes in front of Bonnard’s Women in the Garden. So comfortable, in their happy dresses among all that growth; they fit. They might have been less comfortable had they known a painter was crouched among the shrubs, hurriedly sketching their every contour. Or maybe they did know, and didn’t care. No—they knew, and enjoyed pretending not to.
I’m cultivating my digital poker face. The album is called “Paris in the Fall,” like Ella sings. It always makes me think of the optical illusion:
Your eye doesn’t see the second the because your mind doesn’t want to.
I BOUGHT A CHICKEN
at the butcher on my way home. It’s in my tiny oven now. Smelling good. I dressed it with lemons and rosemary and garlic, which is more than they do to the ones they have turning in the window, and theirs are delicious alone like that.
With the baking dish perched on the two-burner stove I transfer the chicken to a plate, using a spoon and fork, nearly dropping it on the linoleum. I dump the juices and dressing things into a skillet, splashing some on the glasses stacked in the draining rack. The sink warps—snap!—under the hot casserole. I love the steam that answers with a hiss when I turn on the faucet; I love seeing the sticky bits start to come loose from the bottom.
I pour some of the Sémillon from the fridge into a tumbler and some into the pan on the stove, seeing that the casserole melted a corner of the front burner knob. For a few minutes I sip and stir. Wine for the chicken and wine for the cook, just like Julia Child, another American that Paris made room for. I watch the sauce reducing, thickening. The rosemary pops and crisps; the needles are so nice when they’re lightly burnt.
The breasts I’ll save for sandwiches. Tonight, a thigh and a hunk of baguette, some more wine, the second half of yesterday’s artichoke. Me at my little desk. The slowness that made this plate is warm around me.
all my clothes and bedding, are holding tight to the stink of roast chicken. I wasn’t sure if it
would be noticeable, but of course most things are noticeable to children.
“Anna, you smell funny.”
“So do you, mes animaux.”
The kids’ tutor, Leo, is over at the Dufour’s flat this afternoon. We chat in the kitchen during a break in their lesson. He doubtless smells the chicken, too.
“So, how are you finding the city?”
“Oh, I love Paris.”
“And the Dufours, they’re good, ah? You’ll be with them for the year?”
“Mm. The kids behaving?”
“A little distracted today, maybe, taking advantage with being…”
“On their turf.”
“Yes, exactly. The turf.”
“I’ll come sit with you guys, they’re still a little scared of me.”
“Yes, thanks, fear is, uh, the first ingredient for learning.”
IN THE METRO STATION
there’s a poster, words from Edith Piaf, which I think translate:
The Paris metro
on the Paris roofs
has spun silver yarn
and slides, slides, slides, slides, slides.
All my metro rides seem to me one continuous sliding. When I am down here I rejoin a parallel self, the one that is always moving, in the thick of everything, underneath it.
A MAN WITH AN ACCORDION
boarded the 9 at Bonne Nouvelle, and I turned to the window by my small seat. But when he heaved into song it wasn’t the usual polka, he was playing “Poker Face,” and I looked back to him fast. Lady Gaga? Where did he get that? A silly grin distorted his full apple cheeks, but there was nothing false to him, and nothing apologetic. The commuters smiled against themselves. He got off with me at République, and his florid wheezing pushed me and the tide of commuters all the way to the Line 11 transfer.
IN THE HEADLIGHTS OF THE TRAIN
I almost always have something, not a vision or an impulse, but some idea of jumping onto the tracks. It doesn’t come from wanting to do that. I’m not sure where it comes from.
I want to go home and write to my family, friends, tell them that if they survive me, if I die in something that looks like an accident, or any way at all for that matter, it won’t be by mistake, and it won’t be their fault.
I want them to know that I am unafraid. I am quite suddenly sure that when I go, whatever the circumstances, in truth it will be only this: my nod, into an eye large and distant, saying, “Now will do.”
But this is not a thing you tell people. This is not a feeling that translates.
A SERIES OF TEXTS FROM MY LANDLORD
who is supposed to fix the heater tonight:
An opera singer crossed the restaurant where I was sitting
Singing aloud like on the Bastille opera scene
Singing a love song to the waitress
Then singing upstairs, where even the king goes alone
Now I’m close to jumpin into line 8 flying to Balard.
But they have no direct flight
I left my camera on the bus. I call you back.
IN MY STUDIO,
in the evening’s wifi glow, I am alone with my notifications.
I wonder about getting a cat.
I think I see my phone light up with someone’s distant affection. But it is only light from something passing by my window, which reflects off the screen, seizing me, and moves on.
Amanda McCaffrey holds an MFA from NYU’s Writers Workshop in Paris. She lives in Oakland, California. This is her first publication.
Cooler than a polar bear’s toenails…….
We are thrilled to announce the faculty lineup for the fourth annual Tin House Winter Workshops. Taking place at the Sylvia Beach Hotel, these sessions combine the rugged beauty of the Oregon Coast with a weekend immersed in all things literary. The program consists of morning workshops, one-on-one meetings with faculty, afternoon craft discussions, and generative exercises. Evenings are reserved for chowder, karaoke, walks on the beach, and other coastal revelry.
In addition to our much beloved fiction and creative nonfiction weekends, we are excited to welcome our poet friends into the mix this year.
Also new this year, SCHOLARSHIPS!!!
General Application Deadline: November 7th, 2016
Scholarship Deadline: October 19th, 2016
More info and applications can be found here.
I am sappy when it comes to love. I’m one of the first in line for a romantic comedy, even the ones that are simply a distraction from the heat, rain, or mosquitos. John Reed’s wonderful new book Free Boat: Collected Lies and Love Poems gives me that same type of humor, love and quirkiness that I crave, while being a more interesting and fulfilling artistic experience.
Containing 54 sonnets intermingled with a continuous narrative and some of Reeds personal photographs, Free Boat takes you on a journey that you don’t want to let go of. Love poems with built in lies and upside down truths, in which you can find a story of your own— and how you think about relationships.
The narrative that runs alongside the sonnets is one part fiction, one part John Reed’s own history, and one part surrealist dream, a painting come to life. Which makes sense given the fact that Reed’s parents are both New York artists – painters. There is a yearning in looking at a painting that’s akin to reading this book.
I met John Reed when I moved to New York to get a college degree at The New School, where he teaches. I never could clear enough conflicts in the scheduling to be in one of his classes, but I learned from every one of his books and the discussions we’ve had in the writing department. I’ve been to his readings in bars, parks, seminar rooms, and art galleries, where we all would stop from peering at paint and clay to absorb his carefully chosen words, spoken at a rate one can both enjoy and hold onto.
I was lucky enough to catch up with him over email right before the fall semester began.
Susan Marque: The first thing that strikes me is the title? How did that come about and are you suggesting that we all have lies we tell ourselves or that we see those we love through a kind of lie?
John Reed: On the subtitle, yes on both counts. We are willfully wrong about ourselves, and we are willfully wrong about those we love. Love, to some degree, is a mutual and collaborative deception, or, if we want to be romantic about it, love is art.
Free Boat. I would repeat it to myself. I’m sure by now I see more than is actually there: humor, meaning, pathos. I could do better on where the title came from. Years ago in Southampton, I was walking along with my to-be wife and we passed an old, decrepit boat on display. A sign offered: “Free Boat.” The last sign you’ll ever read.
SM: I find that I can read and reread both the poems and the narrative, enjoying more than I did the first time through. It’s like getting two books in one. Where did the idea of juxtaposing the forms together come from? How did this book begin?
JR: In the last few years I’ve seen more poetry/prose hybrid books. I confess that I don’t often think those kinds of projects come together. Usually the poems feel jammed in there, or the prose feels jammed in there. One of the problems with reading poetry, to me, is the overbearing nature of the poet, the biography of the poet. Identity—relating to our love and lies discussion—is experiential, yes, but it’s also self-imposed. A friend and colleague tweeted his summation, and I think he probably summed up my logic more succinctly than I could. Would it be an indulgence to lean on him?
@easyreeder John Reed’s “Free Boat” is an incredible mix of vivd. contemporary lyrical sonnets and a prose demolition of them
— Nicholas Birns (@nicholasbirns) August 4, 2016
SM: The main character mentions he studied both poetry and fiction. Is that true for you? Is that how you came to write a book with both? How much of this is memoir?
JR: I did study both. Hmm, how much of this is true? Can poetry answer that question? I guess all the poems are true. The prose? Good gracious. I don’t even know. It’s a love letter. How does one measure the deception in a love letter?
SM: What do you see as the role of experimental fiction and/or poetry in society? Neither seem to get the recognition of other forms of writing, and yet you are taking a specific type of poem – the sonnet – that stems from Shakespeare, and making it modern. Why? and Why now?
JR: I don’t really think of the project as experimental. The prose is a bit performative. I guess I’d concede “meta,” but that’s old hat. And sonnets of course, while associated with Shakespeare, have held their place in poetry for four hundred years. I began this sequence in maybe 2007, around the time I finished All The World’s A Grave (Penguin, 2008), which took apart the known works of Shakespeare and put them back together as a new play. I had the meter, I’d been working with that, so sonnets were something I thought I’d try. Their structural form is extremely appealing: succinct and elegant. And their logical structure is no less seductive; sonnets are arguments, concise arguments. Minus rhyme scheme, the sonnet is perfectly modern. I did make some adjustments to the rhyme.
SM: Why sonnets specifically though? You could have experimented with other forms, lengths, etc. Was it just from this work the idea sprung to create a series of them? Concise arguments around the theme of love?
When we first asked Luis Alberto Urrea to give the closing lecture at our 2016 Summer Workshop, he responded by saying he would “throw love notes over the wall,” and “bread to the disrespected.”
It was in this spirit, that Luis took to the podium on our final Saturday together, opened a tiny notebook that he had been composing in all week, and declared “I am here to sing hymns to the broken. We all need a place to stand. I will tell you where I stand and offer you a place or two in your own art where you might pitch a tent.”
It’s 2016, just after gravity’s first speech.
Here I am, lying in the dirt, attempting to sense
the rotation of an earth I imagine
to be singular in space.
I watch the breathable take
shape, though my eyes are inadequate, poised
between nanobes and primitive galaxies. You’ll find me
at my sewing machine, soon enough, mending
the spacesuit I inherited
from a chimpanzee who never knew he was
heroic or beloved. I’m running
on memory, congratulating myself on having survived
prehistory, when my clothes rotted off
and my hair was its own
ecosystem. I want my cave back. I want the paintings I exhaled
in my own blood
to be saved in Technicolor, for the earth to unswallow
a feast of dawns, just so I can pierce
the heart of an unnamed animal.
Devon Walker-Figueroa lives in Iowa City, where she serves as the poetry editor of The Iowa Review and as co-founding editor of Horsethief Books. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in BOAAT, Permafrost, Fjords Review, and Southword. In her free time, she plays the harp and dreams of adopting a capybara.
It’s hard to believe that it took Imbolo Mbue three years to find an agent, not only because because her debut novel, Behold The Dreamers, wound up selling for seven figures but because it’s the kind of compelling tale that keeps ratcheting up the drama and tension until the last page. In the novel, a struggling Cameroonian immigrant couple, the Jongas, become entwined both professionally and personally in the lives of a wealthy Wall St. executive and his family, the Edwards, during the time of the 2008 financial crash. Mbue’s deft storytelling often left me wrong-footed when trying to predict the outcome The author, who hails from the small town in Cameroon town of Limbe (as do her protagonists) and holds an MA from Columbia, has captured the intense sacrifice and determination as well as the anguish and humiliation that some immigrants undergo to achieve the American Dream. The novel ultimately begs the question: Is it worth it?
Jeff Vasishta: Your personal story as a writer is in many ways the American Dream Jende & Neni dream about. Take me through your story – writing the novel and getting a book deal.
Imbolo Mbue: My definition of the American Dream is quite different from Jende and Neni’s—to me it’s more about opportunities to make the most of one’s potential than it is about material/financial success—but like them, I left Limbe, Cameroon for the US, excited about what lay ahead. I went to college and graduate school here, and then got a job in New York, which I lost during the recession. It was while I was unemployed that I went for a walk one day and noticed chauffeurs waiting for executives in front of the Time Warner building in midtown Manhattan. I’d never met anyone in America who had a chauffeur so I was intrigued by what I’d seen. Being that some of the chauffeurs looked like they could be African immigrants, I wondered what the relationship between a white executive and his African immigrant chauffeur might be like, and the different ways the recession might have affected them. I began writing a story about a fictional Lehman Brothers executive and his Cameroonian-immigrant chauffeur and, after several drafts, I started looking for an agent. It took me almost three years to find an agent—she eventually sold the novel to Random House. The journey from getting the inspiration to completing the story was approximately five years.
JV: How did you find your agent? Did the process of trying to find one and the feedback you got change your novel in any way?
IM: I found my agent through a website called Agentquery, a great site with all the relevant info on US-based literary agents, including their contact information, names of some of the authors they represent, and what kinds of manuscripts they’re interested in. Before my agent signed me on, I’d emailed pretty much every agent listed in the database who I thought would be interested in my manuscript, and I’d gotten a mountain of rejections. I must add, however, that the rejections I got weren’t because the agents were dismissive but because the story needed more work. Several agents who read earlier versions of this story were generous with their time and told me why they’d rejected me, while encouraging me to continue writing. So even though the rejections were painful, they forced me to dig deeper and the kind words I received meant a lot to me.
JV: Did you base Jende and Neni in anyone in particular?
IM: No, they were both inspired by various men and women I’d met in Limbe and New York; the challenges they faced as immigrants were inspired by stories told to me by fellow immigrants—friends and acquaintances as well as strangers whose names and faces I’ll probably never remember, but to whom I’ll always be indebted.
JV: Neni is so interesting because on one hand she has the guts and determination to do something quite profound and outrageous, but ultimately she obeys her husband even when he is categorically in the wrong. As she says in the novel, she is not an American wife. She still gives her husband respect and makes it a point not to damage his pride, even in the most trying circumstances. How did you craft her character development?
IM: She is indeed an interesting character, and probably the easiest of the four main characters for me to develop, because I grew up around women like her—tough, opinionated women who were unafraid of saying what they wanted to say or doing what they needed to do for their families, and yet, they recognized that their husbands had the final say. I also thought about immigrant women I’d met in America—women who worked long hours while going to school and/or raising children, all so they could take advantage of the opportunities America was offering them. Considering their determination to achieve the American Dream for their own sake and the sake of their children, they were willing to do whatever they had to do to get past obstacles standing in their way. Maybe they didn’t exactly do things like what Neni did but they still had to be undaunted when faced with tough choices.
JV: Without giving anything away, you steered clear of clichés about white employers and employees who are people of color– i.e., the white savior story. Did you toil over the ending or always have that outcome in your mind?
IM: No, I didn’t toil over the end—it appeared to me very clearly from the very first draft and even though I did dozens of revisions, the story always ended the same way.
JV: One of the Jongas’ most admirable qualities is their ability to save money, which is something many immigrants, particularly the older generation, certainly my own mother, was very good at. Alas I am not. Are you a good saver? Do you think the younger generation of immigrants, moving into such a consumerist world, have kept those traditions?
IM: You’re the first person to mention the Jongas saving skills to me—thank you. Yes, like your mother, they’re are good savers, and thankfully, so am I. I’ve never been much of a spender so saving comes quite easily to me. I also believe in living as debt-free a life as possible, and I actually haven’t owned a credit card in over a dozen years. Still, I recognize it’s not easy to be a saver in a culture where one is constantly being bombarded with seductive messages about things to buy—things which will supposedly bring happiness. Considering how loud and prevalent these messages are, it is understandable how children of immigrants might not value saving as much as their parents. That notwithstanding, I believe it’s not only a consumerist culture that makes it hard for the younger generation of immigrants to save but the challenges of making ends meet. I imagine there are thousands of hard-working young people who’d love to save and live a debt-free life but can’t because low salaries, massive student loans, high cost of housing, and the concentration of most of the country’s wealth in the hands of a tiny minority make it difficult for them to have any money left at the end of the month.
JV: Immigrant novels tend to show how hard the struggle is in a new country but yours also has a twist in that it depicts the opulence and dysfunction of the Edwards as well. But it’s nuanced, I find. The Edwards kids redeem the family. There was no motive behind their friendship with the Jongas, no class barriers. Cindy was the only one who usurped her perceived power. I almost felt sorry for Clarke.
IM: I was interested in examining both sides of the American Dream—those striving to achieve it and those who’d already achieved it and were equally striving to hold unto it. These pursuits take a toll on both families in the novel, as it does on countless families in America, regardless of which side of the Dream they’re on. In addition to their struggles, the Edwardses and the Jongas are also interdependent on each other and this gives the characters powers over one another, powers which they wield differently to keep their dreams alive.
JV: Unlike the Jongas, though, Cindy Edwards seems to wield a certain power of her husband. He acquiesces to her concerning terminating Jende’s employment in a way that I couldn’t imagine him doing if the roles were reversed. Clarke seems to be ultimately a weak person.
IM: Indeed. There is marked difference in the kind of husbands Jende and Clark are—the power they exude out in the world and the power they exude in their homes is different, and I can completely see why you think Clark is a weak person considering the fact that at home he’s not the powerful man he is at Lehman. Then again, is Jende any less weak considering some of his actions? Their wives, on the other hand, make the best of their limited powers and there is something to be said for that.
JV: Are you turning into a celebrity back in Cameroon and Limbe? There must be a big buzz on the novel? Have you been back recently?
IM: A celebrity? Ha ha, hardly. I haven’t been back to Limbe recently but I imagine that, thanks to the Internet, a few people there have heard that someone in America wrote a book about a family from Limbe. The book hasn’t been published in Cameroon so most book-lovers there know nothing about it, though, I’m hopeful it will be available there one day—I imagine readers there, particularly in Limbe, will have a singular interpretation of the story.
JV: What is your writing routine like? Are you as hard working as your characters?
IM: I write at the dining table in my living room and I don’t have much of a routine—I write whenever I can string an hour or two together, though I prefer to write when the apartment is quiet. And I certainly think of myself as hardworking. There’s a scene in the novel where Neni is in the living room doing homework from late at night to the early hours of the morning—I, too, stayed up all night, dozens of nights, so I could take advantage of the quiet to work on this story.
Jeff Vasishta started his writing career as a music journalist interviewing legends such as Prince, Beyonce, Dr. Dre and Herbie Hancock for publications such as Billboard, Yahoo.com and The Daily Telegraph. He’s recently written for Rolling Stone, Interview, The Amazon Book Review and, of course, The Open Bar.
Imbolo Mbue is a native of Limbe, Cameroon. She holds a B.S. from Rutgers University and an M.A. from Columbia University. A resident of the United States for over a decade, she lives in New York City.
An optometrist who tortures his clients by giving prescriptions that are slightly off; A prose poem that compares the old Greek men on the local soccer field to Homer’s Greeks, their ancient, tan bodies darting across the green battlefield; A faceless narrator watching a pair on the beach, trying to determine if they are mother and son or a couple; A hotel worker who sees his family every two months, but the story’s language never devolves into sympathy or romanticism; Someone walks into a taxidermy store where there’s a two-headed calf. “How much for one,” she asks. A sweaty man answers, “we’re only selling them together, we can’t break up the band”; A previously uncontacted tribe comes violently out of Latin America’s jungles, carrying babies and spears and the bloated bellies of those who live off the land; An alternative history of language in which women own everything; A story that opens up a hand that reaches out to caress the reader, then gives one, vigorous slap à la Williams. Of these, the story of The Girl is the most sustainable, because of its arc, though I’ve spoiled it already. She dies. Just today a jogger’s body was found in the marshes, her underwear pulled down, handprints like ligatures around her neck. It’s unrelated to The Girl’s Killer, except in all the ways that it is the same crime, with different details, a shade lighter or darker, a curled tendril or long wave, the same dead eyes—regardless of color—now look up at the metal sky of a morgue drawer, which is not unlike our sky, dimmed as it is by all the excess light that drowns out whatever luminous corpses might turn a pitiful eye toward us.
Adrianne Bonilla is a graduate student at Columbia, where she won the Henfield Prize in Fiction for an excerpt from her novel Astral Cemetery.
Consider your donut loyalties. Consider a donut’s ideal shape and weight; consider ideal donut density.
Jelly-filled. Crème. Traditional hoop versus the donut hole. Donut rebels: cronut or cruller.
Myself, I advocate the classic glazed, but my loyalties here run deeper than mere tastebuds. I am, perhaps, blinded by a particular allegiance.
When my family first moved to Winston-Salem, my mother pacified us three kids with Krispy Kreme.
We’d been living in a small New England town for a decade, and now we were trundling south to Carolina, where suspiciously happy strangers asked after our church, where they didn’t have snowplows or a major league baseball team, where the lawns stayed greenish and bare into December. Jesus smiled benevolently down from billboards. Empty Skoal containers dotted the parking lot.
I was 15 and petulant. The Hot Now sign glowed off of Stratford Road.
Ushered inside, my brothers and I stood obedient in the palace of sweets. Solemnly, we placed the paper Krispy Kreme hats upon our heads.
Before us, clusters of doughy rings plopped into a shimmering bath of oil. They glowed under the fluorescence of the store. The rings floated along into the mechanical flipper, and on the other side, they came out golden, fried and beautiful. Like the gentle, corpulent attendants of a log flume ride, they bobbed drowsily forward until a metal rack lifted them out to dry land. They traveled along the belt, cooling, until they got to the heart of the process, the Kreme that followed the Krisping.
The glaze waterfall: thick, white, uniform. It appeared soft and curiously quilt-like. The donuts disappeared into it, and appeared again blessed, baptized in frosting. They travelled a couple more yards, cooling further to optimum donut temperature, until an employee delicately lifted three donuts and placed them in polka dotted wax paper to hand to us kids, bewildered, transplanted, transfixed by sugar: we three devoured.
The Tin House Summer Workshop is known for its lectures: brilliant, practical craft talks that hone our writerly chops and make us hungry to work. In this same spirit, Tin House’s Brooklyn outpost is proud to offer Tin House Craft Intensives, a series of afternoon workshops focused on facets of craft and led by Tin House editors and writers. Less lecture and more laboratory, the intensives combine close reading, discussion, and in-class writing to offer a potent dose of inspiration and explore what makes writing work when it works.
Join us! We’re thrilled to offer classes the following classes this fall:
Oct. 23rd – Setting the Clock: Manipulating Past, Present, and Pace in Fiction, with Pamela Erens
Nov. 6th – Eternal Structure of the Spotless Story, with Marie-Helene Bertino
Nov. 13th – Literary Swagger: On Crafting Unforgettable Characters, with Naomi Jackson
Nov. 20th – Rebuilding the World–On the Page, with Leigh Newman
Find full details and apply here.
Stuck In A Ball
Think of the rivers of blood, spilled by all those generals and emperors,
so that in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters,
of a fraction, of a dot. – Carl Sagan
If you want to feel really small you think of Carl and his photograph
taking one last peek at Earth before entering bottomless skies.
If you begin to read of galaxy filaments you could wind up so cloudy
you’d rip the cord from your desk and take a walk outside
to catch the last of the sun nesting down below the rim.
With each step taken on your city block you start to swell.
A house sparrow tucking in nods at your largeness.
Rectangles of light form a quilt to cover buildings and you know each
one to be an envelope holding people and pets and worn linen and boards.
You could look in each direction and settle on up, on Carl’s sky
to realize you might need to undo a button or two, you’ve grown so thick
now fastened to this city, smelling only earthly smells, stuck in this ball.
Becca Lamarre is an Indiana native and a graduate of Ball State University. After a stint in the Adirondack foothills of New York, she landed in Chicago where she is at work on her debut poetry collection. Her work has most recently appeared in Red Rock Review, SunStruck Magazine and Driftwood Press.
zings through the century of a window all day
till dusk, then finds a light bulb to orbit. Yesterday
in the hospital I marveled at the newborns, pink
sacks of time, their faces scrunched with the future’s
weight. Walking outside now, beyond the baled
alfalfa, I gaze up where a comet dashes like a mouse
across the kitchen floor of heaven, and there, just below
the Belt of Orion, the photo-ionized gas of the Trapezium
Cluster glows part red blood cell, part luminous wing.
As we get older each look in the mirror gets farther. “Come
back,” they say. On the third floor of the ward I sat with Lonnie,
head shaved like a monk’s, talking about that pond
in Pennsylvania where we once as lovers swam. Now
I stare and would like to part the glass of this sky’s window.
Mark Irwin is the author of six books of poetry, including Large White House Speaking, Tall If, and Bright Hunger, as well as American Urn: New and Selected Poems. He lives in Colorado, and Los Angeles, where he teaches in the Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature Program at the University of Southern California. He lives in Colorado, and Los Angeles, where he teaches in the Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature Program at the University of Southern California.
When Ahab was an infant his mother would bathe him in seawater. They lived on Nantucket Island, where everybody lives by the sea. This comes from the sea, she said, rinsing him, this is the sea, and he giggled and sucked his fingers. And then his father’s ship came home, overflowing with oil from a famous whaling voyage, and they were rich and together again. That night his parents washed the baby Ahab in sperm oil, slick over a washpail. It was one of those spontaneous and illogical things very happy people sometimes do as a monument to their feeling. It was so wasteful it felt like a ritual: candlelight and Ahab’s little nude body covered in a substance worth more than gold, and his mother’s fingers pressing the oil deep into the knee-folds of his chubby thighs and over every baby wrinkle of soft skin, roving with the volitive ownership only available to the fingers of mothers. A soul, she thought to herself, a soul. I have given birth to a soul.
Young Ahab giggled and his father leaned close and said he smelled like the wood barrel they had stored the oil in for the long journey home. And he did, he smelled like lightly charred staves of white oak, and he smelled like the whale. The oil warming on his body had come from the great tun of the whale’s head, and had been, over and over again, to the very bottom of the sea.
He smells of oak, his father said. He is our whale.
There was a long time when neither parent spoke, just looking at their glistening son. Young Ahab cooed in the middle of them, and his father took his own forefinger and poked his son softly over the heart.
Right here, he said, turning to his wife and smiling completely, so in love it made him drunk, right here is where you stick ‘em. There’s your fortune.
Things went on gently like this for a very long time.
Aaron Allen is a recent graduate of Columbia’s MFA and translation program. His manuscript of stories, New Myth, won the State of Utah’s 2015 Original Writing Competition. This is his first publication. He tweets mostly Arrested Development GIFs @aaronisalive
My parents were reasonably on top of the psychological complexities of raising a biracial child in the eighties. Our downstairs neighbor made sure I knew about Tupac and En Vogue by the time I hit adolescence. But I didn’t grow up with my older sister, so there was no black, female presence to monitor my fixations the way I imagine, now that she’s a part of my life, my sister might have done. The four-inch thick orange binder that I filled with magazine images of Kate Moss got a curious grunt from a visiting cousin, but went otherwise ignored.
My subsequent obsession with actresses like Nastassja Kinski and Monica Vitti—let’s face it—rages to this day. Some part of this has to do with the fact that I am attracted to women. But the small black girl ever coming of age inside my heart still holds herself alongside these blondes, their particular brand of beauty blurred with the swoon of appreciation that I feel toward the films in which I first found them—Paris, Texas, Red Desert, L’Avventura. The film lover in me had to shut part of herself down when the nearly naked black acrobats passed a wine glass from one to the other like a circus act in an Italian nightclub in La Notte. And again in L’Eclisse, when Monica Vitti donned blackface—black body— and began prancing around the room, doing her best imitation of Kilimanjaro.
So it was with a mixture of embarrassment and relief that I finally read Tisa Bryant’s Unexplained Presence (2007), a book of prose that infiltrates, reimagines, and gives much needed interiority to the black bodies or black presences that appear as passive, muted or ornamental in European art, literature and film. I claim this book as one I’ve lost and found not because I am encountering it again after a long period of time, but because it fills or speaks to an absence I have long felt, acutely. The book, like one of the characters it revives, “calls out into the Continuum from the fixed boundary of her human life. To all the other unexplained presences living in isolation, living in community, in and out of the kumbla, beyond her ken, beyond Kenwood.”
The genre of this writing is not fiction, nonfiction, or poetry, but it is a celebration of what’s possible within the generous bounds of ekphrasis. Some writings read like a museum placard underneath the title of a piece of ancient art. Others offer a lengthier burst of prose, delineating the goings on of a painting without glossing over, the way our eyes might, the “black page in ornate suiting,” whose presence is highlighted here—altering the tone of everything else about the composition, especially the caption: “Heyday! Is this my daughter Anne?” Longer pieces read like short stories, if short stories were poems that could be projected onto a wall in the form of a silent film while a DJ wove together theory, history and song. In a nod to Roland Barthes, Bryant decides not to include images from any of the works she re-inhabits, “but to instead enter into the foxy realm of myths that images, signs and metaphors create, and to bring you with me.”
The language of every piece manages to replicate the particular style of each aesthetic space it interrogates. When Bryant gets to L’Eclisse, the pause-drenched, black and white cinema of Michelangelo Antonioni emerges in Bryant’s language in all its abstractly intimate, elliptical glory: “You turn the lights on, then off, and darkness deepens, or grays. You hold a black shawl up to your face. You become a swath of darkness with white hands. Anita sighs.” The “you” here is played by none other than Monica Vitti. Her blackface, hip thrust “dance” is bracketed by raised eyebrow quotation marks, and it is interrupted on the page not by the friend who walks in on the performance and stares with judgment, as in the film, but by Bryant’s invention of a “dark silhouette following her, surrounded by walking sticks, bones and jars.” Bryant searches the performance for evidence of a moral center, encouraging us to contemplate just how many layers of ventriloquism are at play: “Is this where Antonioni secrets himself?” she wonders, “Or is this a simple homage to the complexities of Hemingway?” Continue reading
I was signing copies of a new novel in a nearly empty bookstore when my friend Frank obligingly rushed in, shouting, “I need a novel! I need a novel!” I sympathize—I often need novels. At present I seem to need novels about working women with responsibility: women on the job, but not just menials and not just underlings starting out and getting yelled at.
I want a female main character with power. And I want her to do harm, because there’s no story without trouble. A woman in charge in a novel needs a problem—a problem that, if it doesn’t ultimately lead to disaster, might lead to disaster. If she’s the captain of a ship, it will almost sink—or it will sink—in part because she makes a mistake. If she’s the owner of a factory, it will almost go under—or go under—after she makes the wrong decision, or takes an exciting but reckless chance, or heroically makes an ethical choice that’s so expensive it puts her out of business.
I want her responsible, powerful—and complicated. Flawed. Maybe too distracted by her personal life—by sex, family, love—to make the right decision every time. Or maybe she thrives at work, but something else suffers. Moreover, I want this powerful woman to be the character with whom we identify. I want an equivocal ending for this book that I want to read (or write)—an ending we can argue about.
In a story centering on love, friendship, or family life, work may be little more than a convenience for the author, without much importance to the plot. Work—performed by a man or a woman—gives a novelist a place to send characters when the story needs them gone: a secret is told while someone works late at the office; an affair starts when a spouse is away on a business trip; a teenager gets into trouble while her parents are distracted by their jobs. Novels in which work is background are not hard to find.
But what about books in which work is at the center, in which work causes problems, provides solutions, threatens the solutions, and is part of the resolution? What about books in which the traits that make a protagonist successful—in work and in life—also make that protagonist fail, or almost fail? Good novels about work may describe an activity that’s narrow and specific, with its own jargon, but they have universal relevance. For centuries writers like Dickens, Melville, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Malamud, Updike, and Roth have written books about men with responsibility, in which work life and private life intertwine to bring about tragedy or triumph: books in which men are tested in war or business or farming or money-making as well as in private life. But books like that about women are still hard to find. The nineteenth-century British novelist George Gissing wrote The Odd Women about women in charge of a business (training women to be secretaries, though men had held those jobs before) but the newness and rarity of the main characters’ responsibility is the point.
Of course, during most of the period in which novels have been written, men have held the responsible jobs. But if, these days, a female secretary of state can run for president, can’t somebody write a serious novel about a female secretary of state who runs for president? Continue reading
Minnesotan Association of Rogue Taxidermists
We’ve all had to confront our chimeras
and give them life.
If not life, a voice.
If not voice, a body more true
to their 1-3 immortal soul(s).
Only we can take the garter snake and
recognize the hydra in its separate skins.
You think it’s roadkill
but we can hear it—
deliver us from evil.
How bodies come together!
The cat runs away three times
and returns still with seashells
another tail to keep it company
as wild as our imagination, as free.
Ryan Dzelzkalns has work appearing or forthcoming with Assaracus, DIAGRAM, The Offing, Rattle, Waxwing and others. He completed a BA at Macalester College where he received the Wendy Parrish Poetry Award and an MFA at NYU. He works for the Academy of American Poets and is the tallest man in New York.
Cross-legged on the sidewalk of Rustaveli Avenue, a teenager in a Jim Morrison t-shirt strums his guitar. On a window of the Entreé cafe a peeling tourist advertisement reads, “Tbilisi: The city that loves you.” Pink heels rush past a Roma toddler who sleeps beside a bowl half full of tetri coins, undisturbed by the vendors haggling over metalware, jewelry, portraits of Marilyn Monroe. In Freedom Square I give a line of Georgian script to a taxi driver who nods and starts his car. We speed through Merab Kostava, past the Ilia State University, down Dimitri Arakishvili. As the taxi drives away I walk up the steps to the final stop on my journey, the Eliava Institute.
I had come to Tbilisi to conduct graduate research on the history of medicine. Some medical treatments succeeded in the Soviet Union but failed in America in the early 19th century, and I wanted to know why. I interviewed researchers, sifted through old Russian papers and textbooks, talked to patients. And yet, I didn’t feel completely satisfied by what I learned. It wasn’t until I came home that I found the answer to my question in an unexpected place: American literature. In the 1925 novel Arrowsmith, Sinclair Lewis fictionalizes a contemporary scientific discovery in his story of a scientist who discovers “phage therapy,” a treatment that can be used as an alternative to antibiotics. This same treatment has been at the center of the Eliava Institute’s research for nearly a century.
In reading Arrowsmith, I found myself picturing Lewis’s scenes in a Georgian setting. When I read his description of a phage laboratory, I remembered white-coated Georgian researchers bending over microscopes and test tubes. When Dr. Martin Arrowsmith treats a plague-stricken population, I thought of the epidemiologists who travel across the Georgian countryside to vaccinate nomadic farmers. I felt like I was looking through a kaleidoscope – every time I added a piece of Arrowsmith to the science I’d seen in Tbilisi, I watched as shapes and colors coalesced into new patterns I hadn’t considered before. I had always thought of science and literature as parallel disciplines, since they both examine the world and our place in it, but I hadn’t realized how much their intersection could teach us.
Even before Georgia and Arrowsmith, I insisted on studying the arts and sciences in tandem. In my last semester as an undergrad, I had a Renaissance drama seminar that ended ten minutes before my infectious disease lecture began. (Between the two, I learned more about syphilis than I imagine anyone really needs to know.) I felt divided between the two disciplines, so I turned to my Latin classes (yes, another instance of my lifelong dedication to practicality) to see if I could tease out the origins of this division. The root of the word “science” is the Latin verb “scire,” which means “to know.” In my science courses, I felt distinctly that my professors considered science to be a search for knowledge untainted by the cultural trends and human passions that plagued the humanities and so disqualified them from the pursuit of truth. “Literature,” conversely, comes from the Latin “litera,” or “alphabetic letter, writing.” From literature classes and discussions, I was taught that words are, in fact, ideas, representations of our perception. Words link us together in the present, and they allow us to study ideas of the past. Words are the closest thing we have to understanding ourselves and each other, and reducing the ideas they express to biological pathways and chemical equations disregards creativity, passion, beauty.
Given my own experience with intellectual division, I was able to empathize with Dr. Arrowsmith, who spent his college years struggling between two modes of intellectual inquiry. He was at once encouraged to pursue truth in the “pure,” disinterested investigation of a research scientist and told that the “applied” work of a doctor was in fact a more honorable pursuit. He began his career as an idealistic medical student but, alas, was stricken by the one truly incurable malady – love. Marriage prompted practicality, and Arrowsmith spent years working as a doctor and public health official. He eventually returned to research and developed phage therapy, a treatment that uses bacteriophage (a virus that kills bacteria) to treat human bacterial infections. In this therapy, bacteriophage samples are collected from the environment and applied to the bacteria present in a given infection (e.g., a staph infection, salmonella, E. coli). Phages that work against the bacteria are combined in what is known as a “phage cocktail,” a collection of effective phages that is frequently updated as bacteria evolve. This cocktail can be consumed orally or even directly applied to an open wound.
Throughout his research in phage therapy, Arrowsmith struggled to reconcile his idea of “pure” research with the public image of science. He was committed to understanding the biological underpinnings of phage therapy, but he was also under pressure to commercialize this therapy in order to bring in grants and public acclaim for his research institution. This is no less of an issue today, as John Oliver recently emphasized when he discussed the inconsistency of scientific reports delivered to the public. For example, one such report claims that coffee can cure cancer; another claims it might kill you. Science is always changing, but consumers want absolutes, products, prescriptions. Arrowsmith is instructed to use phage therapy before he really understands how it works; his superiors tell him to think of the good he could do, the money he would make. Likewise, in the early 20th century, prominent American pharmaceutical companies such as Eli Lilly produced phage therapy and marketed it as a revolutionary panacea. But they were selling promises – in reality, their products rarely (if ever) effectively treated infections. Like the institutions in Arrowsmith, companies sold phage before they understood it. Given both this premature marketing and the advent of antibiotics, phage ultimately disappeared from American medicine. Continue reading
We’d been playing pretend for almost a year and he still wouldn’t go back to his life. Meade wouldn’t acknowledge he had another life at all, though he’d bring me into it in ways, mentioning how Cole seemed to like me, driving me by the ranch where he and Cole and his wife had lived before the great domestic unraveling. Testing, I suppose, fantasizing—feeling at the edges to see how I might be assimilated into his greater life.
Meade was cleaning out my apartment cabinets and making lists of domestic goods he thought I needed. I found his possessiveness comforting, though I admitted that to no one.
He said, “You need paper towels.”
I said, “You have a wife who may or may not actually want a divorce.”
He touched his ear with his thumb, just the quickest gesture. I prided myself on being able to recognize his myriad ticks. He could have been brushing away a fruit fly, for whatever I didn’t have, I had fruit flies. We’d tossed all the produce weeks ago, and the flies still rose from the dark when we opened a drawer for a fork. A friend said to fill a mason jar an inch full with vinegar then make a funnel from a sheet of paper and slide the funnel into the jar. This paper chute was supposed to steer the flies to an acidic death. We’d filled the jar and it had sat on the counter for a week next to a piece of plain white paper. Neither of us seemed able to roll and insert the killing device.
Meade said, “You also need aluminum foil. Then we could save leftovers when we cook.”
It happened like that a lot—something I needed subtly moved into something for both of us.
“And a son,” I said. “You have a maybe wife and a son.”
“New dishtowels, too,” he said.
“Meade,” I said. The room was too quiet. I wished fruit flies made noise, like the blood-sluggish horse flies Meade had pointed out when he drove me to his ranch because he wanted to show me where he’d come from. “Where I’ll probably always be,” he’d said and ground a cigarette out in the gravel, got quiet under his moment of self-pity. I don’t think he’d had anything in mind but to show me that road and that house and let me feel that wind and see those rocky pastures after months meshed together on my floor and in my bed.
Cole would be getting out of school soon. He was the first one picked up in the mornings and the last one dropped off in the afternoons, and the bus ride home was nearly an hour long. That was one of about five facts Cole had shared with me the one time we’d met. Meade had called me at work and said, “Come to the Perkins up the highway for lunch. I got a surprise.” The surprise turned out to be an eleven year old boy, shaggy blond hair squirting out from below a Colorado Rockies cap, drinking a Cherry Coke through a straw, and looking very little like his father, whose face and body I knew well—the small brown eyes edged at their corners with crow’s feet, the acne scars along his shoulders, the ankle he’d dislocated twice being thrown from the same horse and which popped when he stood up, the huge calloused hands.
Cole had told me the ride wasn’t so bad in the afternoons. He enjoyed watching the other kids climb off the bus, liked waiting to see if they’d run up to their houses or skulk back with their heads hang-dog low, dreading it all.
In January and February, Meade drove the half-mile down to the head of the ranch road to meet the bus. “I walk it in December and March,” Cole had said. “December and March aren’t really winter. Dad says they’re like the preamble and the postscript.” I knew Meade was imagining me sitting beside him in the cab this winter, waiting at the end of a dead gravel road for a boy who was not my own.
“Meade,” I said, “I have to go to work.”
He closed the kitchen drawer and looked up at the window. We could see the brick side of St. Anthony’s with its red and gold stained glass windows. The clock on the church’s steeple face had been broken for two weeks now, and we’d spent a lot of afternoons speculating about when men would come with scaffolding to fix time. This was in between talking about when it would snow. Talking about that seemed easy still. Meade said it always snowed a little in October in Montana.
“I’m saying what if I don’t want all that,” I said.
He opened a cabinet and said, “It doesn’t change its being there.”
Then I walked out of the apartment, leaving Meade with the fruit flies and the view of St. Anthony’s. I was going to walk until my feet felt as cold as Cole’s stomping down that ranch road in December and March. And when I got home, I knew I’d find Meade on the thick brown rug in the living room with his feet up on the couch. Sometimes he was so much like a confused boy that I couldn’t look away from him.
Greg Brown‘s fiction has appeared in Shenandoah, Epoch, and Narrative Magazine, among others. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he lives in western Maine with his daughter and his partner and is working on a novel about family mythology, Penobscot Bay, native river rights, and a territorial lobstering feud.