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Lost & Found: Aisha Sabatini Sloan on Tisa Bryant

Lost & Found

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.

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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.”

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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

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Women Taking Charge

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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.

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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

Posted in General

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Minnesotan Association of Rogue Taxidermists

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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.

Tiny-House

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.

Posted in Broadside Thirty, Poetry

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One Culture: Science as Fiction and Future

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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.

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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.

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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

Posted in Essays

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October in Montana

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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.

Tiny-House

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. 

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays

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The Wilderness

Flash Fidelity

We had a book. And in the book, there were hundreds of pictures of the Civil War. The book was heavy and cool as a rock. When we were both eleven we held it between us, the left side would fall on his lap and the right on mine. We shared it slowly, gravely. Whenever our families got together, we opened the book.

In 1863, in a section of overgrown farmland that had been worked dead and then abandoned, two great armies met in tangled willows and thick pine. They bumped into each other, like blind men, before radios, or satellite, or even accurate maps. They killed each other with their hands, or shot into the wilderness, hoping to hit something they couldn’t see. Wild pigs ate the dead and wounded in the night. From outside of the wilderness, in their camps in the cleared fields, the men heard screams all night.

A year of war passed. Moving in circles and turn-around the armies returned. The rotten ground stood again between them. This time, they turned up the bones of last year’s dead. After the fighting and charging, sometime in the night, a fire started. First low, in the dense leaves and brush, then running up the trees like a flag up a mast. And again, sitting in their tents, with the wilderness like a black sea between them, the armies listened to the screams of the men they couldn’t save as the fire moved through them and spread both ways outward. In one picture from the morning after the battle there are bones and ashes.

We loved the photograph of the burned bodies under the burnt trees. I think we knew that it was horrible. What we were doing was wrong, or it felt that way. The book sat openly on the shelves, but when we read it together, we hid. Or maybe it was because under the dead weight of the cover, half on my lap, half on his, our legs touched from thigh to calf and charged me like rubbing my feet on the carpet. I could feel him move against me as we flipped through picture after picture, pointing out the bones, the bones, the bodies.

We used to hide out by the northeast corner of his house, where it was always cold and in shadow. The woods came right up to the clapboard there, the blackberries and birch spilling over the stone wall like waves, rising back into the dark pines and up into the sugar bush. If I think of him at eleven, he slips away over the stone wall like one of the family’s cats, and I can watch his white blond hair fade away into the darkness like a white tail running, into the wild places where it is easy to lose your way.

Tiny-House

Megan Baxter is a MFA candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Originally from New Hampshire, she is currently living in South Carolina. Most recently her essays have appeared in Carte Blanche and The 3288 Review. Megan is working on a memoir and a collection of linked lyric essays. She received her BFA from Goddard College and is a graduate of Interlochen Arts Academy.

 

 

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Fishes’ Tears

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Fishes’ Tears

Translated from the Ukrainian by Alan Zhukovski

 

Spring passes!

Birds cry. Fishes’ eyes

Are filled with tears.

—Matsuo Basho

 

after the flood

subsided

we listened attentively

to fishes’ tongueless

weeping

through the lines

and planes

of gelid water

the fishes swam above

our sunken ships

and we observed

the gently swinging

silver earrings

of tears

fixed to their eyes

Tiny-House

Serhiy Zhadan (born 1974) is a Ukrainian poet, novelist, and short story writer. English translations of his poetry and articles about him have appeared in The New Yorker, Virginia Quarterly Review, Poetry International, Asymptote, The Wolf, and elsewhere. He has received the Joseph Conrad-Korzeniowski Literary Award, the Angelus Central European Literature Award, the Jan Michalski Prize for Literature, the Hubert Burda Prize, the BBC Ukrainian Book of the Year Award, and the Brücke Berlin Prize.

Posted in Broadside Thirty, Poetry

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Pleasure Kid

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“You’re like a radiant corpse,” she said to the man in her bed. She had wanted to say it for days.

“I know,” he said brightly, looking up from his book. He was older than she was. “I get exhausted,” he explained. “I really do. But then I get excited.”

“Then you forget your body,” she added.

“I really do,” he smiled.

“You’ll be on your deathbed,” she said. “And then you’ll get excited.”

“And then I’ll live for ten more years,” he said, returning to his book.

She chucked her head back with a laugh. “You’ll be like, I forgot to die.”

He laughed too. He liked her cavalier attitude toward death— his death. Perversely it relaxed him.

She moved the sheet off her naked chest and wanted to kiss him but instead stared, which felt tantric—a slow burn.

He didn’t mind being stared at. He felt the measured heat of her gaze and soaked it up like sunshine. Being loved—it was exactly like being at the beach. She was the sun and the ocean and the hot sand too, enclosing him in airy pressure.

She went on staring with her head on its side. She could tell he hadn’t been handsome as a younger guy. But age had pushed his face into another dimension. He was handsome now. It was so often like this for funny-looking young men, she thought. Funny looked better later—rotting.

And it was just the opposite for baby-faced heartbreakers. They aged into ugly guys, she thought. All of them did. Because their perfect soft beauty wore down and all you could see was that it was gone. They age like women . . . old peaches, she thought, smiling wide.

He wasn’t looking at her but he could hear the wet sound of her teeth being revealed. It was like a wolf breaking out of a child’s face.

“Tell me about acid,” she said because she’d never done it. She really wanted to but feared the things she’d do, slice her arm open or just stare into the mirror and into herself, going perma­nently insane.

“I already did.”

“Tell me again. Tell me about looking at money.”

Leopoldin Core Cover

“Well I remember looking at a dollar—the pyramid. It seemed like a religion.” He set his book down. “This one guy who wasn’t tripping—he was leading us—he decided we should eat pizza. And it was the kind of pizza with bubbles—you know, like airholes. So it looked like it was happening in front of us.”

“Happening in front of you?”

“When you’re tripping nothing is still so it wasn’t just a pizza that had a few bubbles—it was like it was bubbling right there. Like it was the surface of Mars blowing up. And you would no more think about eating this thing than you would think about throwing your face down on lava and licking. It was the craziest thought in the world. So we were like scared children and of course this guy was laughing.”

She smiled giddily, loving the story and his face as he told it. And she knew it was a kind of sickness, how she fell so hard and wore her weird heart on her sleeve like a little hungry roach. “I love that you did so many drugs,” she said and felt like a moron. What she meant was “I love you.”

“I never wanted to be anything,” he said. “I just wanted to feel good.”

She nodded and thought to herself that he was still living that life.

“I was a pleasure kid,” he said.

She smiled. “I don’t know if I am.”

“I think you are.”

“I might be a masochist.”

“No.” He shook his head as if to say that he had fucked many young masochists and was therefore an expert. “You like to feel good,” he commented.

She lay there and considered her own existence, coating and enslaving her. Did she like to feel good? Sure. Good and then blank. She loved this man and would soon feel nothing for him. Even in the heat of her love she could feel the devil peering, waiting to enter her. The devil is blankness, she thought, hating what she contained. It was why she didn’t want to do acid. Evil was too close. It lived in her cells and yearned to sing. Continue reading

Posted in Excerpts, Fiction, General

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Ode to the Tampon

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From Issue 66

Tiny-House

Ode to the Tampon

Inside-out clothing;

queen’s robe;

white-jacketed worker who clears the table

prepared for the feast which goes uneaten;

hospital orderly; straitjacket

which takes into its folded wings

the spirit of the uncapturable one;

soldier’s coat;

dry dock for the boat not taken;

seeker of the red light of stars

which have ceased to be before we see them;

bloodhound;

unhonored one; undertaker;

secret-keeper;

you who in the cross-section diagram,

before the eyes of a girl child,

glide into potential space,

out of the second-stage rocket’s cardboard cylinder,

up beyond the atmosphere,

where no one has gone before;

you who began life as a seed in the earth,

you who blossomed into the air like steam from a whale’s blowhole,

you who were compressed into a dense calyx,

nib which dips into a forty-year river;

mute calligrapher—we write you here.

Tiny-House

Sharon Olds is author to 12 collections of poetry and holds numerous honors including a National Endowment for the Arts grant and a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship.  Her most recent collection, Stag’s Leap, was the recipient of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the T. S. Eliot Prize.   She was New York state poet laureate from 1998 to 2000 and currently teaches for New York University’s Graduate Creative Writing Program.

Posted in From the Magazine, Poetry

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What Was Your Favorite Color Growing Up

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If you walked into that house you’d think you’ve just walked out of it. It always smells like toast. Toast and fertilizer. There are a lot of green plants around but none of them are alive, unless you believe plastic breathes, and the man in there does. He does tai chi after breakfast every morning but calls it yoga. If you saw it you’d call it dancing. There’s nothing blue in the house because the woman in there thinks blue should only be for the sky. After you arrive she’ll decide to live in the backyard with the stacks of half-melted records. Lots of reggae. No soul. You’ll want to ask her, what about the blues, but I wouldn’t. There are no bedrooms in the house, only closets, and the closets all have porcelain white sinks. Water’s everywhere, mold like bruises on the ceilings, and yet when you ask, they’ll say they’ve never made toast. Soon you might think you’ve never made toast. Don’t worry, that’s normal. The kitchen is pink. The kitchen is also yellow. This will make sense when you’re there. You should open the refrigerator. There’ll be a small girl in there with purple eyes and gold teeth. Crack a joke and she might smile, but she almost never does. The man and the woman know she’s there and they won’t talk about her if you ask. Don’t touch the girl. Just watch her. She’ll count off her fingers. Her fingers will be so large, so swollen, and you won’t know her name. You don’t need to. Her hands are covered in something that looks like black paint but it isn’t. You’ll wonder if she’s cold, if you’re cold. You’ll wonder how long she stays in there. Again, this is normal. There’ll be eggs and apples in the fridge with her, but that doesn’t matter unless you’re hungry. I’d only eat an apple if I were you. An orange one. The girl will show you the number when she’s done, her fingers dark and sticky. The number will be higher than you think and it’ll follow you around the house like a song. The woman will start to talk in circles in the yard. It’ll sound like coughing. You should nod if she ever looks at you. There isn’t a working record player but the man always dances. Like most things you’ll hate it but watch it anyway. In the house, the nights are like days, like a windowless room with florescent lights, and you won’t be able to sleep. You’ll wonder if the light ever turns off in the fridge, you’ll forget which of the sinks work. Days slip by like overripe bananas. It’ll finally happen over dinner. You’ll realize the man’s eyes are purple, that you’ve never seen the woman smile. The dinner will be eggs. Remember, only an apple. You won’t be able to look at them after this, so look at the table. Think of all of people and places you’ve forgotten. Quietly, in unison, they’ll ask you for the number. If you remember it, they’ll let you leave, and when you do, you’ll realize how long it’s been, how blue.

Tiny-House

Kathleen Boland is the editorial assistant of The Southern Review and an MFA candidate at Louisiana State University. This is her first publication. 

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays, General

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Home of the Harlequin Ladybird

Flash Fidelity

At first the ladybugs were pests. I crushed them between squares of toilet paper. I clung to their mummied bodies with uneasy fingers. I learned to dread their metallic smell, and the eerie weightlessness of their shells. I joked that my apartment was the land of single ladies, and planned to dress as one for Halloween, because ladybugs were all I could see.

Then they became my roommates. But they were roommates I’d found on Craigslist, strangers with whom I happened to share a kitchen and a shower. I began to notice the kinds of things you notice only about people and bugs that you live with. The way they lingered on bathroom tiles and stray receipts, drawn to the color white. How rarely they interacted with one another, and how, if they did, they huddled in corners or paused mid-wander, butt-to-butt, at ninety degrees. The way one black wing looks when it licks out from under the shell, so thin at the filigreed tip it is gray. I decided the darker, more densely spotted ones were the wives.

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I became adept at handling their carcasses: I was a ladybird cemetery attendant, the caretaker of a graveyard that happened also to be my home. I learned to use the flat, ridged side of the body as a grip, since putting too much pressure on the glossy shell would cause the insect to slip. I learned to regulate my body’s reaction to the hint of slip before the full slip, which if I didn’t steel myself would make me think the bug had reanimated, alive.

Now I greet them when I come home—“Hey, guys!”—in the same voice I use to greet chin hairs before I pluck them, each wiry time they arise. It was easier than I thought it would be to transpose the letters of pest, to begin to think of the ladies as my pets. I didn’t know what they ate (yet). I didn’t know how they reproduced, or how long they’d been alive (two years, maybe three) when I lay them on the surface of my toilet’s water and counted them before flushing them away. I didn’t know if the black spots on my ceiling were their feces, my mold, or their eggs. But my vacuum cleaner exhaled the musk of their bodies every time I turned it on. “How did an apple seed get in here?” was my benign thought when finally one showed up in my mouth. “Tickles”—when, driving on the highway, I realized a harlequin ladybird was roaming inside the warm toe of my sock. “How sweet!” the time I watched one use its snout to steer a friend’s corpse round my sink. And if you tell me that ladybugs eat other, peskier bugs, I will react with smug satisfaction: of course they do, those old maids, my little skunks. They dot my floor like pimples, and pimples can be sexy.

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Helen Betya Rubinstein‘s essays have recently appeared in Parcel, STORY, Okey-Panky, The Millions, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. She lives in Mount Vernon, Iowa.

 

Posted in Essays, Flash Fidelity

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Announcing the 2016 Tin House Scholars

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Now that we have said a tearful goodbye to our Portland summer campers, we wanted to take a moment to acknowledge those writers who were the recipients of a 2016 Tin House Scholarship. We could not be more excited by the pages they shared with us, as well as the work yet to come. So proud to add them to our scholar marquee.

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Fiction

Carson Beker is a writer, playwright, storyteller, and actor with an MFA and MA from SFSU. She is the co-founder of The Escapery, an SF Bay Writing Unschool and has also taught creative writing at San Francisco State University. She is the former Fiction Editor of Fourteen Hills. Her work has appeared in Gigantic Sequins, Sparkle + Blink, Transfer Magazine, and Bourbon Penn, her plays have been at the San Francisco Olympians Festival and at Z Space. She’ll be a 2016 Lamdba Literary Resident in Fiction.

Jennifer Croft is the recipient of Fulbright, PEN, and National Endowment for the Arts grants, as well as the Michael Henry Heim Prize, and her translations from Polish, Spanish, and Ukrainian have appeared in The New York Times, n+1, Electric Literature, BOMB, Guernica, The New Republic and elsewhere. She holds a PhD from Northwestern University and an MFA from the University of Iowa. She is a Founding Editor of The Buenos Aires Review. Read illustrated chapters of her novel—in a wide range of languages—at homesickbook.space.

M. V. Fierce was born in Moscow four years before the Soviet Union collapsed. Her childhood consisted of wearing giant bows in her hair, eating borscht, and visiting Lenin in the Red Square mausoleum on school field trips. She now writes short stories in Toronto, Canada. She was on the longlist for both the 2015 and the 2016 CBC short story prize.

Gabriel Houck is originally from New Orleans, where his family still lives. He holds MFAs in writing from California Institute of the Arts and from the University of Iowa, and is currently a PhD candidate and Maude Hammond Fling Fellow at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s creative writing program. His story, “When the Time Came,” was selected as a distinguished story in the 2015 edition of The Best American Short Stories, edited by T.C. Boyle, and his writing appears in journals such as Mid American Review, Western Humanities Review, Grist, PANK, Moon City Review, The Adirondack Review, Fourteen Hills, Lunch Ticket, and The Pinch. His fiction has also won Mid American Review’s 2014 Sherwood Anderson Fiction Prize, and has earned finalist honors in StoryQuarterly’s 2014 Fiction Prize, among others.

Dennis Norris II is a graduate of Haverford College and holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. His writing has appeared in Bound Off: An Online Literary Audio Magazine and Madcap Review. In 2015 he was named a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow and has previously won awards and fellowships from the Hurston/Wright Foundation, the Vermont Studio Center, VONA, and the NYS Summer Writers Institute. He lives in Harlem and is hard at work on a novel.
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Olaniyi Omiwale was born in Lagos, Nigeria. He shares his birthday with Fela Kuti, the late Afrobeat pioneer. His favorite writers include Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe— both of whom he cursorily read in his childhood but rediscovered with renewed interest in his youth. Olaniyi was also a participating writer at the 2015 Yale Writers’ Conference.

Cam Terwilliger’s fiction and narrative journalism can be found online in American Short Fiction, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, and Narrative, where he was named one of Narrative’s “15 Under 30.” In print, his writing appears in West Branch, Post Road, and Gettysburg Review, among others. His work has been supported by fellowships and scholarships from the Fulbright Program, the James Jones First Novel Fellowship, the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts.

Poetry

Leila Chatti is Tunisian-American dual citizen, who has lived in the United States, Tunisia, and Southern France. She received her M.F.A. in poetry from North Carolina State University, where she was awarded the Academy of American Poets Prize. Her work appears in Best New Poets 2015, Boston Review, North American Review, Narrative, Missouri Review, Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, and other journals and anthologies, and she serves on the poetry staff at The Adroit Journal. She currently lives with her partner Henrik and their cat in West Bloomfield, Michigan, and will be heading to the Fine Arts Work Center as a writing fellow this fall.

Diana Khoi Nguyen is currently a PhD candidate in creative writing at the University of Denver. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in Poetry, American Poetry Review,PEN America, The Iowa Review, and elsewhere.  

Tommy “Teebs” Pico is author of the chapbook app absentMINDR (VERBALVISUAL, 2014), the books IRL (Birds, LLC, 2016), Nature Poem (forthcoming 2017 from Tin House Books), and the zine series Hey, Teebs. He was the founder and editor in chief of birdsong, an antiracist/queer-positive collective, small press, and zine that published art and writing from 2008-2013. He was a Queer/Art/Mentors inaugural fellow, 2013 Lambda Literary fellow in poetry, 2016 Tin House summer poetry scholar, was longlisted for Cosmonauts Avenue’s inaugural poetry prize (judged by Claudia Rankine), and has poems in BOMB, Guernica, the Offing, and elsewhere. Originally from the Viejas Indian reservation of the Kumeyaay nation, he now lives in Brooklyn.

Nonfiction

Danielle Bainbridge graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2012 with a B.A. in English and Theatre Arts, Cum Laude. Danielle’s past research has included comparative work on African American and Caribbean theatre. She is currently pursuing a joint degree at Yale University in African-American Studies and American Studies and the certificate in Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies. Her creative non-fiction has been published in Moko Magazine and Killens Review of Arts & Letters.

Sarah Gerard is the author of the novel Binary Star (Two Dollar Radio), the forthcoming essay collection Sunshine State (Harper Perennial), and two chapbooks, most recently BFF (Guillotine). Her short stories, essays, interviews, and criticism have appeared in The New York Times, Granta, New York Magazine‘s “The Cut”, The Paris Review Daily, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Bookforum, Joyland, Vice, BOMB Magazine, and other journals, as well as anthologies for Joyland and The Saturday Evening Post. She’s been supported by fellowships and residencies from Yaddo and PlatteForum. She writes a monthly column on artists’ notebooks for Hazlitt and teaches writing in New York City.

Allie Rowbottom was an East Coast based writer, splitting her time between the City lights and her equine companion at his barn. In 2008 she received her bachelor’s degree from NYU’s Gallatin for writing and women’s studies; in 2009 she relocated to the West to attend the California Institute of the Arts to continue nurturing these pursuits. She now lives in Houston pursuing her Phd.

 

 

Posted in Workshops

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Pepper Parker, Vintage Books

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Welcome to Tin House’s Bookseller Spotlight, a new series of interviews with indie booksellers across the country. This week, we talk to Pepper Parker, of Vintage Books.

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Tin House Books: What was the first book you read that made you fall in love with reading?

Pepper Parker: When I was a child, there were very few books in our home.  I was an outdoorsy kid, in a little Tennessee farm town, so I never thought I was missing anything.  I must have read The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew six or seven times, so I was just done with books.

Then, somehow, when I was eleven, I found a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird.  Dr. Martin Luther King had recently been killed and I was just beginning to perceive the anger of my generation at the establishment, its values, its racism, its wars, all of it.  I read To Kill a Mockingbird in one sitting, and then it really hit me: this is the power of books.  This is what books are for.

THB: If you could spend the day with a character, who would it be and what would you do?

PP: The character who immediately jumps to mind is little Gavroche, from Les Miserables.  I’d love to follow him around the Paris streets for a day, and learn to be untroubled and full of cheer in the middle of a revolution.  I’d like to climb inside the elephant (where he lived).  I’d like to have his resilience, his courage.

But then, I would also love to hang out with ANY of the quirky, lovable people in Brian Doyle’s Mink River.  The Department of Public Works, the crow, the opera-singing police officer, the Native artist – they’re all adorable, and so real.  I’m certain that one day, driving down the Oregon coast, I’m going to find that magical little town, Neawanaka.

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THB: How has being a bookseller changed your relationship to books?

PP: That’s a good one.  When I think about it, it feels like the books I recommend have almost become my children, and I’m anxious to see them prosper, and want to make sure that when they go out into the world they will be loved.  Probably, if I were simply a reader, I wouldn’t take it all so personally.

THB: What’s a recently released book you keep recommending?

PP: The most recent one I’ve fallen for would be LaRose by Louise Erdrich.  I’ve always loved her work, but this one is especially painful and ultimately, triumphant.  A heartbreaking story of a man who accidentally kills his best friend’s son, and in his remorse, offers up his own son to the bereaved family.  We watch how the boy, LaRose, grows up, the center of two families’ tragedy, the center of a mixed-race village and its history, the center of a tangle of betrayals and frustrations and old resentments – and in the end, the catalyst for a wide and profound wash of healing.  Erdrich is certainly one of the truly great American writers of our age.

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THB: What’s a book you love that not enough people know about?

PP: I’ll have to thank Tin House for this one – Agaat by Marlene van Niekerk!  How could such an astonishing work be so little-known in this country?  Here are the lives of two women – an elderly white woman who can neither speak nor move, and the young black woman who has been her servant (but more like a daughter) for many, many years.  The whole history of Africa – the women’s history – unfolds in the story of this farm run by these two inseparable women.  The book is so elegantly written, so elegantly translated, that you have to find someone to tell.  It’s simply a gorgeous book.

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Pepper Parker grew up in Tennessee, far from any bookstores, and never dreamed of having the fortune to work in one. She spent years working with the homeless around the country, some years as a hospice assistant, and then later as the director of Disabled Services in Portland, OR, until her children grew up and she was ready for a career change. Twelve years later, and she’s still at Vintage Books, the oldest, largest independent bookstore in Southwest Washington.

Posted in Bookseller Spotlight

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Philadelphia, Negro

 

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As we can’t get enough of Gregory Pardlo (his lecture, reading, and pants were some of the top highlights of our recently completed summer workshop), we thought we would revisit his poem from issue #54

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Philadelphia, Negro

Alien-faced patriot in my Papa’s mirrored aviators

that reflected a mind full of cloud

keloids, the contrails of Blue Angels in formation

miles above the campered fields of Willow Grove

where I heard them clear as construction paper slowly

tearing as they plumbed close enough I could nearly see

flyboys saluting the tiny flag I shook in their wakes.

I visored back with pride, sitting aloft dad’s shoulders,

my salute a reflex ebbing toward ground crews in jumpsuits

executing orchestral movements with light. The bicentennial

crocheted the nation with the masts of tall ships and twelve-foot

Uncle Sams but at year’s end my innocence dislodged

like a powdered wig as I witnessed the first installment

of Roots. The TV series appeared like a galleon on the horizon

and put me in touch with all twelve angry tines of the fist

pick my father kept on his dresser next to cufflinks

and his Texas Instruments LED watch. I was not in the market

for a history to pad my hands like fat leather mittens. A kind

of religion to make sense of a past mysterious as basements

with upholstered wet bars and black-light velvet panthers, maybe,

but as such a youngster I thought every American a Philadelphia

Negro, blue-eyed soulsters and southpaws alike getting

strong now, mounting the art museum steps together

like children swept up in Elton’s freedom from Fern Rock

to Veterans Stadium, endorphins clanging like liberty

themed tourist trolleys unloading outside the Penn Relays,

a temporal echo, an offspring, of Mexico City, where Tommie

Smith and John Carlos made a human kinara with the human

rights salute while my father scaled the Summit

Avenue street sign at the edge of his lawn, holding a bomb

pop that bled tricolor ice down his elbow as he raised it like

Ultraman’s Beta Capsule in flight from a police K9 used to

terrorize suspicious kids. Your dad would be mortified too

if he knew you borrowed this overheard record of his oppression

to rationalize casting yourself as a revolutionary American

fourth-grader even though, like America, your father never lifted

your purple infant butt proudly into the swaddling of starlight

to tell the heavens to “behold, the only thing greater

than yourself!” And like America, his fist only rose on occasion,

graceful, impassioned, as if imitating Arthur Ashe’s balletic serve,

so that you almost forgot you were in its way.

Poetry

Gregory Pardlo is the author of Digest, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and a finalist for the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award. His first collection Totem was selected by Brenda Hillman for the APR/Honickman Prize in 2007. His poems appear in The Nation, Ploughshares, Tin House, The Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry, Best American Poetry, and elsewhere.

Posted in From the Magazine, Poetry

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Jeebie Jeebie

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The boyfriend’s girlfriend used to speak to him like he was a baby.
She would come up to him stringing nonsense sounds together like “jeebie jeebie” or “newmoo newmoo” and hug him or pinch his cheeks.

After she bought the dog, however, the girlfriend stopped talking to the boyfriend like he was a baby. Instead, she spoke like a baby only to the dog. She would go up to the dog and say, “mewkoo mewkoo,” and hug the dog and rub her face against the dog’s face.

When the boyfriend tried to hug the girlfriend in the kitchen one night, she pushed him away and said, “Leave me alone.” The dog witnessed the whole thing. And afterward, the dog came up to the boyfriend and licked his hand, and the boyfriend bent down and hugged the dog and said, “Are you my beautiful little princess?” which was what he used to say all the time to the girlfriend, before she bought the dog.

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Trevor Fuller‘s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Kentucky Review, Wigleaf: (very) short fiction, Vinyl, and Burningword, among others.

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays, General

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Requiem for Bread

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An excerpt from The Cathedral Of Mist (Wakefield Press)

Translated by Edward Gauvin

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Requiem for Bread

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Bread should never be sliced, my grandmother says, it must be broken.

And she takes the knife from my hands. I say nothing, silent in the presence of sacred words.

I ask my cousin to explain. She is twelve years old. I trust her because of her eyes. Great big eyes with bluish whites and moist, glistening irises each night paints anew with India ink.

She considers.

I feel like she is about to unveil one of the secrets of the world to me, one of those secrets guarded by dragons.

She says, “When a knife touches bread, the bread screams.”

A short while later, my cousin and I play at leaning out the fourth floor window. She slips and lets out a scream. A feeble scream. But right away, I know it as the scream of death. She crashes into the sidewalk.

***

Every night since then, no sooner did I shut my eyes in bed than I would see her falling. A neverending plummet. Slowly she would twirl as if suspended in the air, always just about to crash into the sidewalk without ever hitting it. It was an unbearable sight. I’d let out a scream then, a very feeble scream, so as not to wake my grandmother, in whose room I slept. She’d come running right away, very alarmed. She would sit down on my bed.

“Hush, it’s nothing. Go to sleep,” she would say gently, “Go to sleep, nothing’s the matter. Go to sleep, she’s in heaven.”

Heaven was far away. My cousin! Why wasn’t she here with me anymore? Never again would I run to her in the morning to see the irises of her eyes painted anew.

“Cry,” my grandmother would murmur, “If you cry, you’ll sleep. If you sleep, you’ll forget. Cry, cry, it’ll do you good. And her too. If you cry, she’ll sleep better up there.”

I never could bring myself to cry. I kept seeing my cousin inside me, falling without falling, twirling without moving, dying without dying.

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***

One night, my grandmother found the words to soothe me. She explained that there were heavens everywhere, some not far away at all. A special one had even been arranged for my cousin. She would soon be sent to the seaside, to Ostend, to a first-rate boarding house for little dead girls. I no longer dreamed I saw her falling. But still I could not cry.

***

My grandmother herself died a month later. Ever so pale, she lay smiling on her deathbed. I knew she was smiling for me, that she was saying, in silence, “Hush, it’s nothing. Nothing’s the matter. And tonight, sleep, sleep; it’ll do me good, for I’ll be sleeping too.”

Instead of crying, I smiled at her. I answered her as one speaks to the dead: in silence. “Go see her in Ostend, Grandmother, in that first-rate boarding house for little dead girls, and tell her not to forget me.”  Continue reading

Posted in Excerpts, Fiction

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Birch Skin

Summer Reading

Birch Skin

Once you wear a birch skin,
foxes can’t possess you.
You’ll see through their guises
.

Cold July, a girl is peeling
the bark from a white birch
like a brittle tape.

Our climate is full of them.
We offer the fox god
rice in bean-curd purses

The girl holds her thin bark
against the paling sun
in the overcast sky.

Don’t scratch your scab. Foxes
are drawn to the smokey smell
of your healing wound.

Mother’s voice, rising mist.
and my hand undressing
the birch against all harm.

My child, my course of scars,
You’ll always fear being owned
by something other than

yourself. My unblessed.

Tiny-House

Miho Nonaka is a native of Tokyo and a bilingual poet.  Her poems and essays have appeared in various journals and anthologies, including Ploughshares, Cimarron Review, American Letters & Commentary, Iowa Review, Satellite Convulsions: Poems from Tin House and American Odysseys: Writings by New American (Dalkey Archive Press).  She teaches English and Creative Writing at Wheaton College. 

Posted in From The Vault, Poetry

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The Cat

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Coop stepped forward and stood over the bag, his head cocked. “What the fuck did you do?”

From our current Summer Reading issue, “The Cat” by Jackson Tobin

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We tumbled into Coop’s basement through the cellar door, tracking snow and stench from the putrid Backwoods cigars Fitz was always burning, mulch and sawdust rolled in a dirty sock. The four of us—Coop, Fitz, Nate, and AJ—like always. There were no windows, and many of the bulbs had burned out among the ceiling tiles, so where light did come from the recessed fixtures, it was a hazy cone of yellow, filtering down like a jail yard spotlight.

Nate burst in last, a full thirty seconds behind. He’d still been in the house when we took off running, and now he came in the door holding his backpack out in front of him. As we spread out on the floor of the Coopers’ filthy basement, peeling off our sweat-soaked ski jackets, he placed the backpack carefully in the middle of our circle.

Something was moving in the bag.

“What?” AJ said, his voice already squeaky with fear.

“Unzip it,” Nate said. He stepped back, sat down cross-legged.

Now we watched the black JanSport as if it were stitched up with dynamite. Our pupils were still shriveled from the blinding winter light outside, so we couldn’t trust our eyes—but there was no mistaking the sound. An angry rustle of paper, a tearing of fabric.

Coop stepped forward and stood over the bag, his head cocked. “What the fuck did you do?” he said to Nate. But his voice was fat with admiration, his grin a salute.

*******

It had been Coop, that morning, blinking in the nuclear snow glare, who said, “Let’s go see Toby Peterson.” Toby was a prissy kid with doting doctor parents. Coop hated him the way Coop hated rich kids, and poor kids, roided-out jocks and Internet geeks, know-it-alls and idiots. Which is to say, it was nothing personal, exactly, us picking on Toby that particular snow day. Coop was all for equal opportunity when he terrorized.

We were out on the frozen baseball field, standing around grinning in our outgrown snow clothes. School was canceled. The night before it’d snowed hard, a whole season’s worth folded up in one long gray cloud. The temperature was falling all through the storm and by the end a hard inch of crust glazed on top of the powder. We felt taller, with all that new earth underneath, and feeling taller was of outsize importance to us. In any group we knew where we ranked in height and every other hierarchy: if we could slosh down a Poland Spring of cheap vodka without puking; how many times we’d been punched in the face; whether we’d had sex yet, and if so, how crippling the stories of our incompetence were. Unfortunately most answers put us right in the middle, and the middle is no place for a sixteen-year-old boy. To be at the top was fine, but even better to be at the bottom—to have suffered. To have a reason for the anger that came off us like a smell; sometimes loud and sometimes hardly noticeable, but always there if you got close enough.

But it had to be the right kind of suffering. Coop had a dead mom—this was the right kind, the cool side of pain. She died when we were still in middle school. Coop and his three brothers all buzzed their heads before the funeral, and when they stood in a line at the gravesite, they looked like different versions of the same person, as if each could turn to his left and glimpse his future, two years, four years down the line.

It was a horrible thing, of course, but mostly for the adults, who debated when a cocktail of Ambien and Belvedere was simply self-medicating and when it was suicide. For Fitz, Nate, and AJ, our parents’ affairs and slow poisonings now seemed fine. Just regular. And Coop? Coop finally had something to be angry about.

The rest of us had two-parent households and, unlike Coop, fathers who came home every night, fathers who asked us how we were—fathers who cried. We had no wars and no death and an inescapably bright future, and in the warmth of that future’s light we gnashed and squirmed. We were as furious as Coop. Maybe more so.

*******

Toby Peterson lived in a big house on Falls Pond, all timber and glass. We’d been taking turns pissing in the Petersons’ mailbox when Fitz slunk around to the backyard. Oi, he yelled after a moment, and we all came around.

The door was open, just a crack. Fitz stood there, a bent little grin burning in one corner of his mouth. He had his hands jammed in his pockets, a posture of victory—he’d nudged up the bar and knew no one would get over it.

Except then Nate lurched forward, kicked off his boots onto the bristly WELCOME mat, and slipped into the house.

Christ,” Fitz whispered. “I didn’t tell him to go in. Nobody said to go in. You guys saw.”

But no one said anything in reply. We stood there, our gloved hands cupping our eyes, pressing our faces to the glass. Through clouds of hot breath, we watched Nate slink around the first floor. Watched him creep up the stairs, his feet leaving the top step.

When his socks reappeared, we scrambled over the snowbank and out of the yard. AJ looked back and saw Nate stumble on his way out the door, falling farther and farther behind, but then we went around the corner and he was out of sight. All we could do was keep running and hope he was behind us.  Continue reading

Posted in Fiction, From the Magazine

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Driving a Truck North Through a Novella by Christina Stead

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A December or so ago, I drove a 26-ft truck from Florida to Massachusetts. I’d done it before. Scratch that: I’d done the reverse.

Everything my wife and I owned sat massively behind me, but this only started to seem ominous when the truck began to transmit cryptic diagnostic messages no one could properly explain on a screen on which I was told no messages should appear. I now think I was deep into some factory-level protocol, but that’s just me putting words around something I don’t understand, something that tried, just a little bit, to kill me.

On the morning of the second day, a few miles over the Virginia border, the truck went dead stick in about fifteen seconds on 95 in the rain. I’d had an alternator kick out on me once on the highway, and that was like this, only this was much, much faster: a progressive power failure starting with the radio and ending with the power steering, brakes, and drive-train. By the end, I was standing on the brakes, wrestling the nearly useless steering toward the median, in a slalom I can still feel in the pit of my stomach.

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Writing chaos is tough, in part because there’s no such thing as chaos: only order we can’t discern or don’t understand or dislike so much we reject it out of hand.

Christina Stead narrates this kind of terrifying order better than anyone I know: sometimes in a kind manic aerial shot, sometimes in a fever of words that pour from everyone’s mouth toward a fixed point in the center of the reader’s mind. I think of her as George Eliot angry in a 20th century way, but she remains obscure because—beyond the frustrating and persistent neglect of ambitious women writers—we are only rarely in the mood to admit the world is ever quite like this: terrifying, terrifying on a normal day. Her most famous novel, The Man Who Loved Children, makes Dostoyevsky look mild and easy-going. No novel of family life captures the baseline suffocation that’s part of any family, even the happiest family. Her disasters are the real thing and we don’t much want that. We’d much rather have our disasters in slow-motion, carefully assembled toy cars or planes, cities or boats, coming apart in stately CGI. Stead never allows things hitting the fan that faux-regal grace.

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Three hours for dispatch to find a company willing and able to tow me, the whole truck whipping back and forth from the force of the 18-wheelers blowing past without getting over. I read the manual cover to cover, then stood in the rain while the young driver used a wrench about the size and shape of a cow’s hind leg to remove the driveshaft.

In the cab, canceling dinner with the woman in his life, he uttered the words I remember him by, “I don’t know what to tell you: I’m not gonna turn down work during the week.”

Back in North Carolina at a soon-to-be-permanently-shuttered company repair barn, I sat in a break room decorated for the holidays: tinsel and Christmas tablecloths, an artificial Charlie Brown tree over the out-of-time terrazzo and brown paneling. The skeleton crew of mechanics put my truck through the wringer. After dark, they let me drive away.

I stayed alone in the hotel I’d departed from that morning in a not quite identical room. Outback Steakhouse handed me someone else’s take-out order so I ate someone else’s meal, chewing stupidly through Rain Man. I slept badly or not at all.

I don’t want to oversell this: near-death or not, that’s not my point: only that for a little while everything meant to go left went right and the confident shape of the world on which all things rely slid almost entirely away. There was no content to it, no message to me, just the simple error of it. Next morning, I drove the truck to Richmond and sat for several more hours while a new alternator was put in. The messages continued, but the truck ran better. Still, I kept waiting for the other shoe, the next dead stick, maybe on a curve with no median, maybe while I was turning. Continue reading

Posted in Essays

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Last Bet: Cleveland 2016

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I’ve been wrong about everything this year. All my predictions, all my knowing, self-assured asides, all my cute, contrary prophecies, have turned out to be utter crap. Like everyone, I misread the spirit of 2016 on a grand scale. This time last year I was assuring my friends that Marco Rubio was exactly the kind of bland, blow-dried, poll-driven robot the delegates of the GOP most loved to nominate, and that come November he’d beat the broadly reviled Hillary by three points. Along the way I’ve thought Bernie would pull something off, that Trump would implode, that the email server thing would drag Hillary down, that the Warriors would sweep. I was wrong on every single count.

This is sad on a broad cultural level, but it feels sad for me personally, too. I once prided myself on my powers of political soothsaying. In 2004, I had no question that John Kerry’s weird Brahmin horse face would alienate the general electorate. In 2008, I was the first among my friends to call John McCain as the GOP nominee. Not since 1988—when I ended election night in fits of adolescent tequila-induced sobs over Dukakis—have I succumbed to dumb idealism or wishful thinking. I learned that night that only predictions based on cautious cynicism bore fruit. If I could simply remind myself every season how stupid and self-deceived people are, how fundamentally afraid, I would usually manage to get some fix on the probabilities.

Watching the rise of Trump, however, has been a daily embarrassment. I’ve been jerked around by every news cycle and fallen for all the fake obstacles the media has placed in Trump’s path. Only slowly have I come to realize what’s happening here—namely that people aren’t choosing fear and familiarity this time around, but rage and hate and the itch to burn the house down. 2016 is like 1968 without the peace and love, and all my normal, lowest common denominator metrics are no help. Which is why I’ve come to Cleveland for the GOP convention—to make one last stab at a prediction. I want to place a final bet. Will Trump, this avatar of crude greed and sadism, carry the new era? Or will the neoliberal meritocracy of Hillary Clinton hold the day? I’m already bored to death of this race, but want to get a grip on the new odds. More than the fate of the nation is at stake here; my own pride is on the line.

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I arrive in Cleveland for Day One of the convention, and the scene is pretty dead. On the walk from the parking complex to the arena zone, iced coffee in hand, I see the outlying protesters are mostly of the typical crank variety: a guy in a janky, 70s-era RV plastered with horrific fetus posters; a flatbed hauling a billboard for a movie called “Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party”; a mangy grandpa in an old pick up collaged with handmade signs adding up to a feral pro-guns/pro-Jesus call to arms. Around passersby’s necks are lanyards bearing placards of differing strength: white for delegates, blue for alternates, green for outer perimeter, brown for press, and a potpourri of others for everything in between. I made no effort to acquire any of them.

For the past week—which is to say in the days since the shootings in Baton Rouge, and two weeks after the horror in Nice—I’ve been fielding worried emails about coming to Cleveland at all, but I’m finding the vibe of the street not so worrisome. That’s maybe because there are more cops on the street than I’ve ever seen in one place in my life, bearing bright arm patches denoting their provenance. There are cops on loan from the California Highway Patrol. Cops from Georgia. Cops from Indiana. They rove in gangs of four or more, sticking to their regional teams. There are cops on horses, cops on bikes, cops in shorts, and cops in tan, belted jumpsuits reminiscent of the Ghostbusters uniform. As the crowd thickens, the cops marble the streets in ever fatter strands. Of course, a terrible event could come out of nowhere, but even if a sniper was specifically aiming for tall, skinny white guys with canvas totes and little note pads, I wouldn’t even be the first target.

East 4th Street is where the main crowd is churning. Lined with bars, the street forms a one block alleyway leading to the gates of the Quicken Loans Arena. MSNBC has kindly set up shop in the alley, broadcasting from a mobile booth crowned by big diamond-vision screens and serious speakers. There’s a fun effect as the reality of the anchorperson is siphoned into the screens above and the actual becomes informational, but anyone whose ever been near a camera can’t be that excited by the slightly hyperreal Doppler effect. I spot Tucker Carlson on the street, who’s shorter and squatter than expected.

I go down the alley and around the mouth of the arena, which is also pretty dead (“Did something just happen here?” a girl wonders aloud. “Or is this, like, it?”), and circle around to Cleveland’s Public Square where I’m told some civil disobedience might be on tap. The scene is dead there, too. On the far edge, a scrum of hillbillies preaches against Islam and homosexuality and espouses extreme love for the word Jesus. Their hats read “Fear God,” and for some reason a few otherwise rational-seeming citizens have taken the bait, getting up in their faces to argue about the fundaments of a good, moral life. Jesus! Tolerance! Jesus! Tolerance! The little knot of discord clings to the edge of the park like a tumor, but everyone outside of the ambit of hatred seems bored. I talk to a reporter from Ireland who confirms this is the extent of the action thus far.

A mild uptick of energy comes when two more aggrieved parties mount soap boxes in the park, and briefly there’s an overlap of amplified angry voices. One speaker is a Jesus guy, and the other is a guy in a suit representing something called Patriotic Millionaires, whose agenda seems to be campaign finance reform. And then the medieval Duck Dynasty guys raise their voices, and their opponents raise theirs, and a phalanx of cops intervenes to give everyone a little more breathing room. The cops move in on bikes and shove the onlookers a few yards back, and briefly we’ve got about 75 people encircling about 10 Islamophobes. The specter of some open-carry maniac with a quick trigger finger flickers, but very soon the hillbillies disperse, led away by their own private cordon, and the crowd, such as it is, disperses as well. It’s late afternoon. Muggy and hot.

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On Carolyn See’s Rhine Maidens

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Our staff was very sad to learn of the passing of Carolyn See last week. She was, as Karen Karbo knew, “an institution and a great friend to many writers.” Here, a Lost & Found essay from our thirteenth issue in which Karbo praises See’s novel Rhine Maidens, along with a note from Karbo on the sad news.

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Carolyn was the matriarch of a school of LA writing that didn’t exist when I first started out. There was Didion, of course, but she possessed a New York haut-literary sheen. Carolyn was all SoCal, with her Hollywood strugglers and stragglers, single moms in the canyons, purple Jacarandas that bloom in the February, her giddy wit. We became friends after she graciously blurbed my first novel. We talked on the phone a few times a year, and had lunch whenever I was in LA. Once she said, apropos the perfect regime, “All you need is a thousand words a day, then you’re free to do whatever the hell you want.” We laughed, I remember — she had a great laugh — and I’ve followed her advice for two decades. Adieu, friend.
–Karen Karbo, July 2016

Carolyn See’s 1981 novel Rhine Maidens is not a Lost and Found, but a Found and Kept. Through two moves—one from Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon—and one divorce, it’s been with me always. I left the Norton Anthology of English Literature behind, with all my tiny, laborious marginalia, as well as a number of other books I would, if pressed, list as favorites. I don’t even have a copy of my own first novel.

Rhine Maidens was originally published by Putnam’s in 1981. My copy is a trade paperback from the Penguin Contemporary American Fiction Series, published in 1983. It had been recommended by a friend, but I was in my early twenties then, and broke. I bought it used for $2.95. My name is written in ostentatiously large black script on the inside cover; I remember writing it just before I lent it to someone. I wrote it so big to underscore my point: I want this one back. When I started making more money, I would give books I liked away to friends. I figured I could always buy another copy if I wanted it back. But this one had always been precious. I would be lying if I didn’t say that part of the appeal for me was purely nostalgic.

Carolyn See, the author of nine novels and works of non-fiction, including Golden DaysMaking HistoryThe Handyman, and the terrific memoir Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in America, writes about California in a way that gets to the heart of a native: what it’s like to drive down Wilshire Boulevard on a foggy midnight. The preternaturally cheerful Brentwood matrons who live to play tennis and have the current PC bumper sticker on their Mercedes station wagon. The God-awful cattle feedlots that skirt I-5 in the hot, dusty dead center of the state. The Jacaranda trees and night-blooming jasmine.

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There are more objective reasons See’s second novel remains a great read twenty years after its publication. (Even references to est don’t seem to date it much.) The zippy pacing; the mix of hilarity and poignancy that rivals Lorrie Moore; the timeless family angst writ large on every page. Rhine Maidens is a mother-daughter smackdown, told in kicking-and-spitting double narratives. Grace is the mother, a sixty-three-year-old divorcee and widow living in Coalinga, one of those scorched Central California towns surrounded by oil wells. Tumbleweeds and sand blow against the side of Grace’s shabby rent-controlled apartment, scorpions show up daily in her tub. Grace was beautiful at twenty, and it’s been downhill ever since. Her first husband left her; her second husband was a drunk who up and died. Life hasn’t been fun since sometime in the ’40s, when she used to go dancing at the Ambassador Hotel. Her narrative is addressed to her best friend, Pearl, long dead.

Garnet, Grace’s daughter, escaped the heat of Coalinga and married Ian Evans, a line producer of television shows with hair transplants and suspiciously long hours, even by Hollywood standards. Garnet has a big house in Brentwood, an interior decorator, an overpriced garden, two pre-teenaged children whom she indulges, and who despise her. She envies Candy Spelling’s cutting garden. She swims daily laps in her pool. She says things like, “I know the right caterer for our exact social class, and I’m in touch enough to know about the new Chinese restaurant on North Broadway. (Not what to order. I leave that to my husband.)” Her narrative is in the form of a journal for a creative class at UCLA.

Grace opens her scree with “I never said I was easy to get along with.”

Garnet opens hers with “I am very sorry to have to start this course—and this journal—with an apology.”

It’s a little like reading a female version of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, another book that I never leave behind.

Due to reasons best discovered for yourself, Grace is forced to live with Garnet and her family in Brentwood for several weeks. It’s a disaster. Garnet devotes herself to trying to show her mother a good time; she takes her to the Getty, out to lunch at carefully chosen LA hotspots, to a ladies’s book club at Grace’s beloved Ambassador Hotel. This only fuels Grace’s derision. She cannot stop bitching and moaning. Grace is jealous of her daughter because she has money and a family; Garnet is jealous of her mother because she’s tough and beautiful. Around and around it goes. The voices of these women are nothing less than a pair of howls in the Southern California wilderness.

Despite the current endless cultural yammering about girrrrrl power and aggressive girls, and self-conscious tomes like Elizabeth Wurtzel’s lame-o Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women, most writers these days—and by “writers” I suppose I mean women writers—are careful to make their heroines feisty and opinionated, but never flat out bitchy, never plain old cranky for no reason other than life sucks. The secret is not to avoid writing nasty female characters; but to convey the anguish beneath their ongoing bad moods.

I once read a review in the Washington Post of Carolyn See’s work. The reviewer accused her of writing “surfer” prose. I remember laughing; I knew it was supposed to be a slam, but to me it sounded like a compliment. (Maybe it did to See, too; her response was to send the reviewer a book on surfing, with her regards.) See works a sentence and a story like a surfer does a wave: sliding fast down its glassy face, finding surprising little places to cut in and out, playing it out to its perfect end.

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Karen Karbo is the author of the novels Motherhood Made a Man Out of Me, The Diamond Lane, and Trespassers Welcome Here; the memoir The Stuff Of Life; the best-selling Kick Ass Women series; and three Minerva Clark mystery novels for children. She grew up in Los Angeles and now lives and writes in Portland, Oregon.

Posted in Essays, From the Magazine, Lost & Found

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American Dream

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The chef said he would make a special dinner for us, the American honeymooners. It was our first night at Lake Pátzcuaro, Mexico, and we were the inn’s first guests and this was the restaurant’s first big meal, the afternoon comida, the gastronomic heart of Mexican life. The chef was enthusiastic.

I envisioned a bubbling stew brimming in an earthenware pot, steam lifting with a woody spiciness that hinted at its forest origins. I wanted to know about that spice’s journey to my table. Had the chef hand-carried the herb, perhaps the umbels of a rare plant that blooms only once, under a full moon, down a mountain around his neck in an alpaca hair pouch? Maybe that was romantic, but all food has a story and I wanted to experience a novel’s worth, translated in my mouth.

On the lawn outside our room, a barbecue flamed and hissed into the lakeside air. And behind it, our chef, grilling up what seemed like… Texas-style short ribs, slathered with a ketchup-based barbecue sauce? The aroma reminded me of childhood. An acrid sweetness that had coated most every barbecued rib I’d known. I scanned the chef’s provisions for a bottle of Heinz, as he asked us to not say a word until we’d sampled all his carefully researched dishes, allowing the flavors to first mingle and settle on our tongues.

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His research produced for us a bowl of mayo-rich potato salad, spiked with crunchy bites of celery that would make my Kentucky aunts nod in approval. There was corn on the cob, duly dripping streams of salted butter onto flowery hand-painted terracotta plates. (And I had been so hoping to taste Mexico’s traditional dusting of chili powder and crumbles of cotija cheese.) There was even coleslaw worthy of a Fourth of July potluck, shards of orange carrot and purple cabbage strewn throughout like celebratory streamers. (I couldn’t break the chef’s heart to tell him coleslaw was actually a Dutch tradition brought to the States by settlers, but instead confirmed that, yes, Americans do like coleslaw very much.) It was an all-American picnic in the middle of Michoacán. And it was good, but I left that place hungry, still thirsting to understand what tastes excited local chefs, where our palates intersected, where each was likely to provoke and entice the other.

Flash forward to Papeete, Tahiti. It was midnight at the airport. The brother of a friend piled fragrant leis of frangipani around our necks, flower layers building until the petals tickled our ears. We rode through the night in the back of a pickup truck, swaddled in scent, the songs of unfamiliar insects punctuating the darkness, papaya fields blurring past. When we arrived at the family home, deep in the countryside, we learned it had been emptied for the visiting Americans—not only had an auntie and uncle given up their bed, they’d donated their entire house.

The next morning, our host tapped on the screen door. He wanted to treat us to breakfast. His generosity had already humbled us into perpetual gratitude, but we weren’t about to pass up a Polynesian Sunday brunch. Tahiti had similarities in cuisine to my home of Hawaii, but Polynesia also had a long and intimate relationship with France, which meant where Hawaii’s cuisine had combined with influences from Asia, Portugal, the Philippines, Tahiti had slid into bed alongside les Français, whose sensual palates had drifted far across land and sea to infuse the food of these balmy islands. In Hawaii, one of the beloved local mainstays is poke—raw fish, typically ‘ahi tuna, steeped in a basic blend of sesame oil, ground kukui nut, and crunchy strings of seaweed. Here, the raw fish equivalent was a coconut-creamy, lime-marinated French-Tahitian poisson cru. And had I heard that Tahitians stuffed salty French fries in the middle of their baguette sandwiches, their casse-croûtes? Euro-Pacific fusion at its kitschy best. Continue reading

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Mike Gustafson, Literati Bookstore

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Welcome to Tin House’s Bookseller Spotlight, a new series of interviews with indie booksellers across the country. This week, we talk to Mike Gustafson of Literati Bookstore.

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Tin House Books: What was the first book you read that made you fall in love with reading?

Mike Gustafson: Growing up in a small rural town, I was an outdoorsy kid who loved to play outside; “reading” seemed like something done indoors. So, I initially stayed away. I categorized reading as a “school activity” — a requirement. I didn’t understand that reading could be as fun as getting lost in the woods (which I loved to do), and could open up new, exciting worlds like those I’d discover in the backyard woodsy swamp lands I loved exploring. For example, I wasn’t aware it was possible to invent a new religion. That wasn’t a topic that people discussed in rural Michigan. Which is exactly what Kurt Vonnegut, another midwesterner, did in Cat’s Cradle. When I read that book, handed to me by a friend during formative years, it was such an eye-opening experience. You can invent new religions! You can invent new worlds! You can draw pictures of scandalous body parts and include it in a novel! Reading, for the first time, felt like an adventure, like I was wandering the paths behind my parents’ house just for the sake of wandering. I soaked up the rest of Vonnegut like a sponge, and I was hooked. As a bookstore now located in a college town, we get all kinds of students and younger people into Literati Bookstore who haven’t yet “read for fun” — math majors, engineers, students of various sciences. I love these interactions. “Here,” I say, handing them this new world of printed paper. “Read this. Lose yourself.”

THB: If you could spend the day with a character, who would it be and what would you do?

MG: I’d take my good friend Hanta — the protagonist I care about and deeply love in Too Loud A Solitude — to see a psychologist. “I’m concerned,” I’d tell him, “You’re muttering to yourself in our bookstore and, quite frankly, steal too many of our ARCs and cram them into your tiny studio apartment, and it simply doesn’t have enough room. I think you don’t realize your literary obsession will kill you, quite literally.” And he’d respond, “I can be by myself because I’m never lonely; I’m simply alone, living in my heavily populated solitude, a harum-scarum of infinity and eternity, and Infinity and Eternity seem to take a liking to the likes of me.” And I’d turn to the psychologist and throw my hands up and say, “See?”

THB: How has being a bookseller changed your relationship to books?

MG: Everyone chooses something to worship in life — money, love, lust, beauty, nature — and they spend a lifetime chasing that, even if they don’t know it. Being a bookseller means I am surrounded by people who have chosen to love and worship books. We have hired many former Borders employees, for example. These are people who have spent an entire lifetime around books. I love watching them interact with the books in the same way they interact with friends and people. I love learning why they picked up a particular book. What they love about a story or protagonist. What they love about the physical object of a book itself. Our manager, Jeanne, loves discussing book covers — what attracted her to that particular book, even if she had never heard about it before. Books are more than glued and bound pieces of paper. They take on greater significance for booksellers, and being a bookseller means I am surrounded by people who can see and value this. Being around people who have decided to love books as opposed to money or power, makes me feel good. Like I can absorb that passion, bathe in it.

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THB:
 What’s a recently released book you keep recommending?

MG: Chris McCormick’s Desert Boys makes me better understand my own childhood. Any great book does this; any great book you finish, set down, and enter this blissful, difficult, moving space of reflection. After I read a great book, I probably stare at the ceiling for 30 minutes, or I take a walk around the neighborhood at midnight. I need to be alone and reflect. Sometimes I think about people I once knew. Sometimes I think of my own experiences. When I finished Desert Boys, I thought about my own small town, group of friends, my relationship with shame and guilt and how you become who you become. Little Labors is another wonderful, odd, surprising and hilarious collection of words. This book felt like such a discovery, it’s so different, I love handing it to people — especially new parents with babies — saying, “Enjoy your little puma.”

THB: What’s a book you love that not enough people know about?

MG: I think people read to have realities either shattered or enhanced. Reading preference, for me, depends on the time of year. During winter — when I’m isolated from the outside world and there’s a polar vortex bursting through my 100-year-old house — I want to shatter my perception of reality. I’m ready for reality-shattering, with covers pulled up and curtains drawn. In the summer, like now, I’m outside a lot; I like to feel part of the world as opposed to feeling removed from it. When the weather is warm, I read to have reality enhanced; I choose books that enhance my relationship with the world like salt and pepper enhances a meal. One book that is wonderful for the enhancement of the natural world is Haunts of a Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero. I love to swim outside, lap swim, immerse in lakes and rivers, and be in the water. There’s not enough great writing about man’s connection and love with swimming and the water, and this book by Charles Sprawson helps enhance my relationship with water and swimming. Another great author for summertime: Keith Taylor’s poetry and prose, I love. He’s an outdoorsman, and he writes in a way that makes me feel more connected to the Earth, our surroundings and our environment. It’s the perfect kind of prose to read on a hammock under a tree in the summer. His collection of prose, Life Science, is one of my favorites, and includes one of my all-time favorite pieces about being a bookseller, and how those fidgety, unruly books end up shifting around on their own during the wee after-hours in a bookshop.
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Mike Gustafson opened Literati Bookstore with his wife, Hilary, during the spring of 2013. Literati Bookstore is a 4,000-square foot independent general bookstore located in the heart of downtown Ann Arbor, featuring three floors of books, and hosting 150+ events and author readings a year.He lives with his wife and two cats in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
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The Perspicacity of Living with Sparrows: Lauren Hudgins on Chris Chester

Lost & Found

I made the decision to purchase Providence of a Sparrow during a prolonged sit on a public toilet. Powell’s bookstore used to keep book posters in frames in the bathroom of their store on Hawthorne. The poster had been collecting people’s names and little promises of love in Sharpie graffiti for months. The image was the same as the hardbound book cover: a man’s hands protectively cupped around a songbird. It reminded me of my father. When I finished the book, I sent it to him, still in my childhood home in Maryland.

My father used to work in a building with enormous glass windows. Birds rammed into them thinking it was mere air. Aggressive red cardinals in bright mating-plumage concussed themselves attacking their own images. My father would hear a sharp thump!, then go out to investigate. If the bird was still alive, he’d put it in a box and bring it home for recuperation. Our most honored houseguest was a male rose-breasted grosbeak, an uncommon Maryland summertime resident related to a cardinal.

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“They’re normally found at a higher altitude,” my father explained. “I guess he’s on his way back from South America. He ran into the window, stunned himself, and was flopping around. Then he flew into the window again and I grabbed him.”

The grosbeak was a little smaller than a robin and had a black tuxedo and a red ascot. He was seldom interested in my encouraging words, and, like all the other wild birds, did not want to be friends. He was one of the lucky survivors. My father released him in the woods surrounding our house.

There’s not much a non-vet can do for an injured adult bird except put it in a dark quiet place and keep it away from predators. We could give it some birdseed and water if it was a seed-eater (the grosbeak was), but it usually wouldn’t eat under such circumstances (the grosbeak did). This is how I learned the body is its own healer, that good intentions have no physiological power, and that patience is the gateway between celebration and mourning.

In Providence of a Sparrow, a sparrow literally falls into author Chris Chester’s life. A tiny “naked blob of flesh” hatchling, like a “testicle with a beak attached” with bulbous closed eyes, tumbles (or was pushed by overwhelmed parents) out of its nest from the eave of Chester’s home in Portland, Oregon, and into a bed of irises in a cold, wet June.

The Audubon Society won’t take the baby bird because it is an invasive English sparrow. Chester and his wife Rebecca keep the bitty thing alive in a small box with a heating pad. On the advice of an expert friend, they raise the hatchling on puppy food delivered at the end of a toothpick. The bird needs feeding every half hour during daytime. They take turns taking the avian infant to work with them. English sparrows mature in two weeks. In that short time “I swear I could see his mind forming,” Chester writes. The sudden arrival of this odd new companion put Chester’s longstanding depression into remission.

They call their adult male B, short for Birdbrain, but B’s little brain is far more sophisticated than anyone knew. In a radio interview Chester described B as a self-aware, “thinking being existing in time.”

When I consider avian intelligence, I think of corvids like observant ravens, persistent crows, and trickster jays. I think of parrots like my family’s peach-faced lovebirds, Rainbow and Crystal, who would let themselves out of any cage door that wasn’t wired shut and overturn plastic flowerpots to ram against each other like ironclad battleships. I think about the tool-creating, wheedling, and lunch-stealing alpine keas I saw while hitchhiking in New Zealand. Or the clever linguist Alex, the famous African Gray. I overlook the common birds in the bushes.

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English sparrows are ubiquitous wherever there are humans. They’re the crowd of little tan scavengers hanging around outdoor food courts, snatching up pieces of cold French fries. The males are fairly easy to identify (at least to me) with a ruddy maroon back and half-circle black bib under their necks. To a casual observer, they are opportunistic but not plainly capable of strategic planning and cooperation.

Mammal intelligence is associated with a well-developed cerebral cortex. In comparison, birds have puny cerebral cortexes. Yet Chester clearly regards B as more intelligent than the smartest nonhuman mammal in the house, his cat Marlowe, who is discerning enough to know which belongings are Chester’s and which belong to Rebecca. When Rebecca first moves in, Marlowe collects Rebecca’s smaller objects, like makeup and shoes, and places them next to the door in protest when she first moves in.to protest her moving in. Continue reading

Posted in Lost & Found

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Summer Workshop

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Dear Reader,

We will be away at our summer writing camp all week, eating red vines and talking about craft. You can keep up with all of our antics by following  #thsw on our various social media channels.

And for those of you lucky enough to be in or near Portland this week, please stop by Reed College to catch a lecture or reading. Our schedule can be found here.

Love,

Tin House

 

Posted in Workshops

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