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This month’s letter-writer at Ace Hotel New York is Christopher Soto, author of Sad Girl Poems (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2016) and editor of the forthcoming Neplanta: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color (Nightboat Books). Soto, also known as Loma, isn’t afraid to write dangerously. He’s been chased by snipers and hacked by right-wing advocates on account of his activist affiliations and endeavors, which are inseparable from his poetry. But more powerful than his critics is his fast-growing readership. Soto’s work appears in The Nation, The Guardian, Los Angeles Review of Books, American Poetry Review, and more, and he’s been awarded the Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism.
As this month’s Dear Reader author at Ace Hotel New York, Christopher Soto was selected by Tin House to spend one night at the Ace, penning a letter to an imagined audience. What he wrote will remain a mystery until later today, when his letter will be placed bedside in each room. In anticipation, we caught up with him to talk revolution, gratitude, and writing the truth.
If you could correspond with any fictional character or literary figure via letters, who would it be? And why?
I would like to correspond with Roque Dalton. He was a poet and revolutionary during the Salvadorian Civil war who fought for the rights of campesinos. My mother and her family migrated to the United States from El Salvador. Roque Dalton is one of the most well known poets from that country. He ultimately gave his life for the revolution and refused to be simply a poet. His words were supplemented by political action and he has been an inspiration to me for years.
Do you map out your writing, or do you discover your path as you go? How often does your work go in directions you never expected?
A bit of both. I have ideas about poems that I want to write and I have ideas about lines that I want to incorporate. Ultimately, I try to avoid too much structure and predetermination though. I want every word, line, stanza, poem to be a surprise to me. I want to feel myself jolted and shocked and dancing with my own process of writing.
Dear Reader tasks you with writing for an imagined audience of strangers. How much do you think about your audience when you write? Have you ever been surprised by who is drawn to your work?
Often my work feels dangerous. I have been chased by snipers in NYC; right-wing ex-military people have followed, hacked, and harassed some friends and me after a friend’s engagement in public activism on a national level. So when I write I am always thinking of my audience in that sense. I understand that words have weight and some people are afraid of the realities that I am describing. Some people are afraid of the conversations that I want to have about police, prisons, queerness, gender, race, capitalism, immigration. I am often afraid of my own writing and unsure about whether or not to publish it. For example, when I wrote the poem “In Support of Violence” that was published in Tin House, I was not sure if people would understand what I was attempting to say. I was unsure if there would be verbal or physical retaliation against me. Unsure if people were ready to have that conversation. There are still a few issues that I will not discuss publicly. This is something a lot of activist knows to be true—harassment for difference and dissidence. For example, when James Baldwin first published Giovanni’s Room he asked to not have his image on the book, afraid for his physical safety. In this sense, I am always thinking about my audience.
What’s a book that you wish more people knew about?
So many books that I wish more people knew about. Right now, I hope everyone knows about Layli Long Soldier’s new poetry collection, Whereas. That is one of the most formally, syntactically, politically acute books I have read in recent years.
Do you have any rituals, ceremonies or requirements that accompany your writing process?
I have a pocketbook of techniques that I use when writing to help incite my writing process. There isn’t one ceremony that I have before or during any poems. There is one ceremony that I am trying to practice after my successes now, though. My friend, poet Ocean Vuong, would always give silent thanks to his family and the people who’ve made his existence possible, after receiving an award or publication. I have copied him in this process and also try to bow my head in thanks after every nudge forward I receive in the poetry community. So many people have made my writing possible. My family and friends.
Dear Reader is a partnership of Tin House and Ace Hotel New York. You can find this interview and other delights on the Ace Hotel blog.
“Hauntingly intriguing; like the thunder claps of the story’s storms, Rose pounds back and forth in her life, never completely settled.”
It was the second round of flashlight tag. We’d been screeching up a storm of fake horror since the sun set. Beth was “it.” I ran far away from her and crouched behind a headstone at the edge of the cemetery grounds near the field. It was very dark, save for the light of the moon, and a streetlamp a nearby farmer had mounted in his yard. The light shone through the wooded area that lined the south side of the cemetery, the blue light splitting through the leaves like spectral stars. Beth called out, “I’m coming for you,” her flashlight beam bouncing in the distance, pointing nowhere near where I was hiding. I kept silent, peeking over the top of a tombstone. Beth called out again, “I’m coming for you, creep!” I screeched. It echoed. She stopped and circled her light around the graveyard, and then, for some inexplicable reason, she started running in the opposite direction of where I was hiding. She ran away from me, shouting, “I see you! I see you!” I stood to get a better look, wondering how she could be so mistaken. She pointed her light in the very wrong direction in which she was also running, and, to my astonishment, it caught a figure of what seemed to be a person. This person halted momentarily, then quickly dashed through an open area, and hid behind a tree near the Thompson Mausoleum. “Hey, I got you. I tagged you. Come out! You’re it now,” Beth demanded. A chill shot through me. We weren’t alone.
I stood up, waving my arms frantically, “Beth! Beth, I’m over here,” I shouted from far behind her. Beth stopped, frozen in place, turned and shined her light on me, then she shined it back to where the figure she’d tagged was crouching behind a tree. Beth screamed, then took off in a dead run back to where I was standing.
“There’s someone else here! There’s someone else here, Gillian,” she panted when she got to me. I threw my arm around her shoulder, and pulled my flashlight out of my back pocket. We both pointed our lights toward where Beth had been standing. “Who’s there? We’ve got a gun,” I shouted, deepening my voice, trying to sound tough, and older. Beth raised her eyebrows at me.
“Why’d you say that?” she asked.
“I don’t want them to think they can fuck with us,” I told her.
“Maybe it was an animal,” she said, continuing to scan the cemetery with her flashlight. Right then, something moved near her beam. She caught it with her light and followed it. It was definitely a person, dashing toward the mausoleum, and then, miraculously, the person opened the mausoleum door and disappeared inside. We both turned our flashlights off and crouched down. “What do we do?” Beth whispered.
“I don’t know. Maybe we should just leave. ” I felt totally terrified.
“Do you think it’s alive?” she asked.
I turned to get a look at her. “What are you talking about? Of course they’re alive. They were running, weren’t they?”
“No.” She looked at me like I was stupid. “I mean, what if it’s, like, a ghost?”
“A ghost wouldn’t show up in the light, would it? I mean, wouldn’t a ghost, like, be transparent?” Sometimes Beth didn’t think things through.
She shook her head, pondering. “What if it’s a zombie?”
♦ ♦ ♦
I’ve been thinking about you and the baby. I think the baby is probably thinking about me too. You remember that story where storks bring little ones in packages? You watching out?
We’re out far now. You think you know what that means but it doesn’t mean anything till you’re here. We couldn’t go back if we wanted to.
There had been four, count them, four letters from him before there was nothing. Nobody said it but she knew what they were thinking: he’d made his getaway while he still could. Her feet were so swollen all she could fit into were wellingtons. Never mind. She put on a coat and the cat came stalking after her and onto the bus before she could stop it. Squalled up and down the aisle, pissed at her feet. She held it tight on the changes, fumbled for exact money. Three buses and a train and finally a dock hardly anyone had heard of.
You seen him then? she said to the men on the boats tied up there. They eyed her belly and she wondered if there was a superstition about a pregnant woman on her own or about a pregnant woman who didn’t love what she carried half as much as she should, or simply a superstition about a woman, filled up or not.
Well? she said, rapping a fist on the gunwale three times: her own sort of curse for them.
They shook their heads. She’d heard stories about post ships robbed for their cargo, pirates lonely enough to take anything that smelt of someone else’s home, even if they didn’t understand the lingo. She dreamt of that: a man with hair white before its time, hunched low over a letter whose words he could not read.
On the way back to town she got lost, slept at a bus station with the cat tied to her wrist with string. In the morning nobody knew where she was going though she wrote the name of the town down when they asked. She would not leave again.
♦ ♦ ♦
She’d known him all through school but it wasn’t till they were both seventeen and in the Fox and Hound that she pulled up to the bar next to him, elbow to elbow, raised an eyebrow. There wasn’t any use pretending.
He was superstitious as an old fish wife. In the beer garden behind the pub she asked if he had a condom.
I can’t use those, he said stiffly, as if she’d asked something inappropriate. They’re like broken mirrors.
What? Polly said, pulling back.
Broken mirrors, he said. Except more bad luck. Longer than seven years anyway.
If she hadn’t been drinking up the courage to talk to him all night and then after that drinking to keep the nerve and after that drinking as something to do, she wouldn’t have let him.
When she told him what he’d done, a month later and she vomiting enough to know, he towed her along the street and straight into the chapel.
What we doing here? What the fuck are we doing here?
He fell to his knees with a purpose she’d seen in him only twice, once in the dank pub garden, fumblingly, and once, barely fifteen, as he skidded towards her, mouth open, arms wide to tackle her down.
What you going to do? she said later.
He turned his head in a pained sort of way. She said his name till he looked at her. How you going to make money, Ruben? He looked like a child who’d got himself lost somewhere. They were sat on the grey cemetery wall and she let him think on it, getting more and more impatient. There was a tractor turning across the field in front of them. Cutting through the corn. She watched him narrowly as he stared at it.
I got a thought, he said.
Is that right?
He looked at her proper then, tapping his nose with the broad of his thumb. She looked at the rash of freckles across his face, clicked her tongue at him until he laughed. The next day he was gone and it took asking more than one person to work out where he was, and even then nobody knew the name of the place or how he’d get back from there.
♦ ♦ ♦
He loved the parts of the boat, the bits that made it up, that brought it together; loved the tangy names for things; loved the rules of it. He loved, most of all, the secret codes of fear and belief the boats ran on. Came home every other week with his fingers nicked like a crabber and leant across the little table she’d got from her mother and told her only the captain was allowed to whistle at sea in case you whistled up the wrong sort of wind; how you had to step on board with your right foot each time and that they called old Kerri Finney a Jonah down the docks because of the bad luck he brought to journeys. He talked often about an old, burnt-out lighthouse and the stories the others told about it.
You have to call a hare a langlugs, he’d said. And you can’t ever let them on the boat. Not ever.
She wanted to stand up, turn sideways, point to the mooning thing that hung out in front of her and say: and what exactly do you think about this?
I’d let a hare on board, she’d say instead.
S’not a hare, he said, frog-eyed above his sharp cheeks. It’s a langlugs. I told you. I told you.
♦ ♦ ♦
At first it was all fishing boats, trawlers and low riders with nets. Except he didn’t want to do that, didn’t want to wake up dark early and spend all day raw-handed, pulling in catches, smelling of fish forever. He wanted, he said, to be on one of the boats that sailed out far enough there wasn’t coast for two weeks, nothing but sea and brine, wanted to work on one of the ships sailed to the Caribbean for rich owners or ploughed to the tip of Africa.
Well, she said – and thought, without saying it out loud, he’d never find one to take him, skinny as he was and where he was from and who his parents were. Boats like that probably cared about things like blood.
♦ ♦ ♦
The last day before he left for good, he came in late, coat front bulging, something moving beneath it, rolling out onto the kitchen table and up into an angry triangle shape. Not black but greying right up to the spatters of white that pillowed its face, turning on the table to observe her with mute rage.
What the bloody hell is that?
It’s a cat.
She felt, then, how all his old mythic beliefs had somehow burrowed into her, just like his baby had.
Bad luck, that’s what you said.
He reached out a hand, grinning his freckles narrow. The cat took a swipe at him.
It’s good luck for sailors. Interesting, isn’t it? And for sailors’ wives. You’ll keep me safe by having her here.
The cat burrowed backwards on its haunches, took another rising step towards his face.
That night he told her about the albatross; birds who carried the souls of dead sailors and what did she think about that? She said she didn’t think anything about it and he stuck his tongue out against her face until she laughed. Later she opened her eyes and saw him looking at her, his pupils very wide, his breathing a little uneven.
That sounds all right, doesn’t it?
What? What sounds all right?
Being in an albatross. Flying around and everything.
What are you talking about?
It sounds good.
All right. Quiet now.
He nudged closer like he was trying to flip back the braces of her skin and climb on in. Like there was comfort in there as much as in the thought of dying only to wake as a passenger in an albatross’s body.
What about you and the baby, though. Where will you go?
She laughed. I don’t know. I could be happy inside a pigeon.
His face didn’t change any. She closed her eyes to cut it out. Continue reading
We’re on hiatus while we spruce up for spring. See you in mid-May with a brand new website!
The emails don’t stop coming, like water torture. One two, one, one two three, ten all at once that a filter should have caught except for some developer’s typo, one, one two seven, on and again and more until she looks up and realizes it’s been 47 minutes and she hasn’t gotten shit, not from outside not from inside, and she goes running to IT in a panic that her inbox is broken and how on earth is she supposed to know who needs what but now the Wi-Fi’s back up and here they come again, like sugar ants in her clean kitchen with the filthy kitchen in the apartment next door (she can only assume!) and when you see one you have to squash it immediately or else trace it back to the source, look for the trail, wipe away the crumbs and the drips of red wine from that one muddy cork and sterilize the countertops with white vinegar and for a little while always they’ll go away but then in half an hour or in the middle of the night or next week they will be back: one crawling past the chrome handle of the spice cabinet (did she firmly cap the agave nectar the last time she used it?) and two tracking like reanimated coffee grounds along the precipitous edge of the sink until she knows before she even gets out of bed that there they will be when she turns away from the tea kettle and opens her eyes wide enough.
It is prudent to know your enemy so in the third stall on Monday during a long bathroom break she read on her phone that the males are called drones and the workers are female, that they predated the dinosaurs on most continents, that they may form as much as a quarter of the animal biomass in any given ecosystem. She gesticulated at the stubborn soap dispenser and mentally raged at the sheer weight they can independently carry. Then she thought about the chicken thighs in her freezer and if a quarter of them were made up of ants and that night for dinner she ate pasta standing up by the stove.
She has refined the skill of spotting their petiole waists moving against the mottled texture of the granite: one, stand motionless in sock feet clutching a warm travel mug and staring with fuzzy vision, then two, strike like a sniper with the pad of your thumb as they emerge from the camouflage. Can they identify the specific curve of the whorls on her fingerprint or could it be anyone forcing the life out between the cracks in their exoskeletons until they finally stop wriggling and she flicks them down the dark hole of the InSinkErator? Before she left this morning she turned the tap on to grind up her banana peel without thinking but now the Outlook button on her taskbar won’t stop shrieking and she is harrowed that their queen, hidden away and breeding, could feel each seismic drip of water from the old brass pipes and did she know what it means that her workers are drowning.
K. Angel is a fiction writer, playwright, and translator living in London. Her work has also appeared in PANK
If you’re just now joining us, Dear Reader is Ace Hotel New York’s beloved micro-residency for writers, and Tin House is its lucky curator. Each month, an author selected by Tin House spends one night at Ace and, while there, pens a letter to an imagined audience. What they write remains a mystery until a surprise date the next month, when the letters are placed bedside in each room.
This month’s letter-writer is Jia Tolentino, contributing writer at newyorker.com, formerly deputy editor at Jezebel and contributing editor at the Hairpin. Jia’s letter drops today, and we caught up with her to talk arguments, reading like an industrial vacuum, and being kind.
If you could correspond with any fictional character or literary figure via letters, who would it be? And why?
I would probably decline the opportunity, as living in New York means drowning in group text and I already feel like I am not a good enough correspondent with many of the people I love. But if I really had to pick, I’d go for someone in the moral stratosphere, like Tolstoy, or someone silly and charming, like Eve Babitz when she was my age in LA.
Do you map out your writing, or do you discover your path as you go? How often does your work go in directions you never expected?
In general, I like to have the sense of how something is going to move, which is one of the reasons I gravitated towards nonfiction while and after doing an MFA. I find the unlimited possibilities in fiction exhilarating but paralyzing, and when you’re making a case about something concrete, it’s much easier to discern the best, or at least an objectively OK, way to go.
When I’m working on something, I’ll spend a little less than half of the time warming up the idea and then writing the start. After that, I can go more freely. As a rule I would like to surprise myself while writing a piece, because if you don’t, the whole practice feels humiliating. I hate reading a piece where it feels like the writer is just performing stenography on some pet idea—trying to prove something that she already feels sure of, rather than figure something out.
Dear Reader tasks you with writing for an imagined audience of strangers. How much do you think about your audience when you write? Have you ever been surprised by who is drawn to your work?
I write mostly to push and entertain myself. Or I’ve found it helpful and easy to think about writing that way, because it feels excruciating to consciously think about reception, particularly for something that’s still taking shape. That being said, my first jobs in media were editing jobs, and editing, particularly on the internet, forces you to develop audience awareness: you learn exactly which types of people react in what ways to what. So I’m sure that calculation is there and whirring. I can feel it when I’m trying to argue a tricky point.
I have been really surprised, very often, by people who respond to things I’ve written—particularly people writing across political orientations and demographic concerns. I’ve swallowed my fair share of shit, and maybe courted it, but generally people have been inexplicably wonderful, and made me feel like it’s always worth it to try and be careful and kind.
What’s a book that you wish more people knew about?
Every year there are a couple books I try to push on everyone—right now it’s Exit West—but I mostly like to give people very personal recommendations and only on request. I always wish more people would talk to me about books they love! I read like an industrial vacuum goes about its business—I will read anything you tell me to, probably later that week.
Do you have any rituals, ceremonies or requirements that accompany your writing process?
Hell no. I like writing, and I don’t force or baby myself into it unless I really, really need to. I’m also conscious of having an extremely conducive and pleasant life, in which being delicate about writing would be basically inexcusable. But I do work particularly well when I’m alone in the house on a weeknight, without an immediate deadline, feeling easy and weird.
Dear Reader is a partnership of Tin House and Ace Hotel New York. You can find this interview and other delights on the Ace Hotel blog.
Seeing that it’s April 20th, we thought we’d celebrate with a preview of Grow Your Own, our forthcoming guide to understanding, cultivating, and enjoying cannabis. The book is a practical (and handsome) guide to the cannabis plant itself, the subtleties of how to raise it, and the myriad ways of putting it to good use. We’re excited about the future, but we thought we’d start with a good sepia-toned, psychedelic-tinged flashback sequence. On this 4/20, it seemed appropriate to offer a brief history of cannabis—its use, its legislative battles, and the culture around it. (Grow Your Own, by Nichole Graf, Micah Sherman, David Stein, and Liz Crain, will be published 9/26/17)
It is the worst of times and it is the worst of times. It is the age of foolishness, as well as the epoch of incredulity, the season of Darkness, the winter of despair. We have four long years before us, we have nothing before us. We are all going direct to Hell. In short, the current period is so far unlike the previous that even the politest progressives will insist on the country being regarded, in no uncertain terms, as fucked.
I could go on.
I could go on about the president with the orange face in Mar-a-Lago, the suite of white supremacists in the Oval Office, the bombs dropped on Syria and a frantic free press, but I’m a hopeful person. If I wasn’t wildly hopeful, I wouldn’t be a writer—a fiction writer—and, as such, a disciple of imagination. My profession is based on asking what if? And this line of questioning, I believe, is essential in a time of terrifying what ifs? It may be the year of Our Loss two thousand and seventeen, a year in which moral revelations are conceded to a Canadian Prime Minister and George W. Bush manifests unexpected charm, but neither a foreign official nor a war criminal will save us. Imagination might.
Would the election have tipped another way if we had thoroughly visualized the frightening repercussions of losing? Would we have campaigned with greater passion? Knocked on more doors? Tried harder to convince our wayward uncles that building a wall was not only racist, but pointlessly expensive? Perhaps. But forecasts for the future go both ways. Democrats also failed to imagine, for voters, what winning could mean. As Masha Gessen explains in The New York Review of Books, “They offered no vision of the future to counterbalance Trump’s all-too-familiar white-populist vision of an imaginary past.” Trump doled out a twisted nostalgia, a vengeful fantasy fueled by fear. The Democrats promised the continuation of an unsatisfying reality.
Those of us committed to a progressive future must take our present anguish as a call to imaginative arms. We need imagination to not only predict and circumvent the worst possibilities—the sabotaging of healthcare, education, the planet—but to realize alternatives to catastrophe. This is where artists become indispensible. In the bid for public opinion, creativity is currency, inspiration imperative. For writers: Our trade is in rendering the unreal real. We are world builders, after all. And while literature highlighting risks, dangers, impending apocalypses is important (a thousand bows to Margaret Atwood) I would like to make a case for the opposite: for literature that chases utopia. How will we build a better world without first picturing what that world looks like? And who better to do it than writers—the people who ask what if?
Such imaginative work is not without precedent. Utopian literature and progressive undertakings have often emerged in symbiosis. Take the organizational wonderland of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887, which spurred a wave of socialist clubs in the late-nineteenth century. Or Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s book Herland, which offered a feminist utopia five years before U.S. women achieved suffrage. Or, in a more contemporary sense, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, which outlines an “Earthseed” religion that continues to inspire social movements. These literary utopias are not necessarily timeless nor universally appealing—from the historical vantage point of 2017, Looking Backward: 2000-1887 can be read as a blithe portrait of a totalitarian state—but they represent efforts, nonetheless, to imagine alternatives to unsatisfying realties.
Literature can serve as a testing ground, an opportunity to mix ideals with practicality, to experiment with the alchemy of human ambition and human fallibility. In literature, Utopia can come to life. When Sir Thomas More coined the word in 1516, he used homonymic Greek roots often interpreted to mean both “good place” and “no place.” Utopia is a pun, a paradox by definition. It has always existed most comfortably, most fully, in the airtight space of a book. Whether or not a fictional paradise is precisely replicated in real life—and whether it should be replicated—that fictional construct can still introduce new ideas, new norms, new possibilities into the broader public sphere. It can serve as a lodestar: a means to nudge the glacial heft of social consciousness away from utter collapse.
We must nudge—and push and tug—if we are going to shift civilization’s doomed course. “To think about the world only as it is, amounts to a formula for collective suicide,” warns Amitav Ghosh in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. “We need, rather, to envision what it might be.” Literature is a means to envision what the world might be. How, for instance, might a civilization evolve to meet and mitigate the worst effects of climate change? How might a character look past her individual identity toward awareness of global interconnectivity? In a society largely dismissive of the arts, it can be easy to forget, as writers, what we actually do: create culture. And it is our culture that needs the most reinvention if we are to face the challenges of an evolving world. If our narratives endlessly reflect the status quo, reinforce existing hierarchies—or worse, play into a nostalgia for an oppressive past—then we write our own destruction.
Instead, let us make our highest principles our most urgent stories. In the blitz of depressing newsreels, the grim shadow cast by our current administration—adept at distraction, gaslighting, peddling fear—now is the time to prioritize ideals, even as the world around us shudders and spins. We must prioritize, at all costs, the dignity of human beings, the right to free expression, the sanctity of our natural resources. “Ideological capitulation and despair are not the answer,” writes Julia Mead in her article on the renaissance of the New Left for The Nation. “The antidote to radical exploitation and exclusion is radical egalitarianism and inclusion.” Let us, in our stories and novels, construct that fair and egalitarian world. Let us offer up clear-eyed alternatives to despair. Let us make the most of literature’s expansive reach, its prophetic possibilities, its power to shape the broader cultural consciousness. Facing the future means facing darkness, but it also means dreaming, giving weight and respect to the imagination. It means writing our way toward hope.
Allegra Hyde is the author of Of This New World (University of Iowa Press), which won the 2016 John Simmons Short Fiction Award. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, as well as support from The Elizabeth George Foundation, The Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, the Jentel Artist Residency Program, and the U.S. Fulbright Commission. Currently, she is a Lucas Artist Fellow at the Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga, California.
Photo: Edward Stojakovic/Flickr
Mine’s Not A Political Heart
All of my childhood fantasies–icescapes
with Alaskan cranes, treasure diving
in the Black Sea–Putin has beat me to them.
He drapes a medal over his shadow,
then extradites the dead from purgatory.
I live with this deadweight of humor
and scorn until the humor burns out.
I know my birthmarks aren’t heraldic,
the sunspots transcribed don’t form
a line of sheet music. Blinking, I kill
a group of gnats, I kill only to see clearly.
Give me refuge from that sentence,
freedom from the choir sanctioning.
Each day the grail looks more like a chalice,
each day, the chalice more like a mug.
Maya C. Popa holds degrees from Barnard, Oxford University, and NYU. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Kenyon Review, Fence, and FIELD.
When I was ten years old, my best friend Marika called my house on Easter morning to tell me that her pet rabbit had died. We hadn’t even had the egg hunt yet, and Marika wanted me to come over for the funeral.
“It’s Snowball Dirty-Ears,” I told my mom when I hung up. Marika’s family always had around a dozen pets, give or take, so there was often a funeral to attend.
“Oh no,” my mom said, since Snowball D.E., a lop-eared rabbit, was a key pet, one of the important family members, not a hamster or a goldfish. Only one of the goldfish was an important figure in Marika’s house, a goldfish named Fluffy who would live for ten years total, after he had grown as big as a carp.
Marika was my best friend in the world, and sometimes I felt like I loved her more than I loved myself, more than I loved my own siblings. I felt overwhelmed by how devoted I felt to her, and I often wrote about how much I adored her in my diary. It was an intense friendship, but one we both had ample emotional space for, in those years before dating began.
So that morning, when Marika needed me, I skipped the egg hunt and ran straight to her house. My mom and little brother said they would be over soon after for the funeral.
“Snowball ate some of the birthday cake,” Marika sobbed when I arrived. Marika’s birthday party has been the day before. The timing of it all was unfortunate. A pet rabbit dying on Easter, the day after a birthday party? If there was a God, I thought, he sure was messing with us.
We wanted an explanation, why life would be so cruel. So, as we dug the hole in the back garden, Marika and I decided that Snowball had been reincarnated as the Easter Bunny. We had recently been let in on the gag that our parents were Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, but it really was a nice thought: Snowball Dirty-Ears hadn’t left us because she’d been accidentally poisoned with chocolate birthday cake, but because she had a job to do. Her spirit had taken over as the Easter Bunny, a revolving position, and she was now bringing happiness and chocolate eggs to children all over. We tested this theory to our younger siblings, and they looked up at us in a mixture of amazement and horror.
After Snowball’s funeral service, I had to go to 11 o’clock Easter Mass with my family. As I was leaving, I heard Marika ask her mom if their family could go to church that day too. Marika wasn’t raised with much religion, and I’d always envied the weekend freedom she had, but suddenly I felt lucky that I had something Marika didn’t, a holy place where I was a regular, a designated place to go when someone died.
I didn’t tell Marika that the nuns who taught my religious education class had told me multiple times that animals don’t go to heaven. I often drew animals in the sky above my drawings of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, the only saint I really connected with. When I got to church for Easter service, I said a prayer to St. Francis for Snowball, since I thought he’d listen. Then I prayed long and hard to Jesus and to all the saints for Marika; I didn’t want this loss to be too hard on her.
I was pretty sure Marika felt guilty about the way Snowball D.E. had died, since her own birthday cake had killed the rabbit. I wanted Marika to forgive herself, because maybe it wasn’t the birthday cake at all, maybe the rabbit had an aneurysm or another condition that caused sudden death. I would learn much later that guilt often goes hand in hand with death, and we will always wish there is something we’d done differently, some way we could have stopped it. It is a useless exercise, but something many of us experience after loss.
My own birthday party was at the end of the same month; Marika and I had always loved that our birthdays were ten days apart. I kept my own rabbit, Rocky, upstairs in his cage for the party, and Marika sat next to me as the cake was served. Life went on. Marika got another rabbit, another lop named Pumpkin.
But about a year later, Marika and I visited a farm with our parents and siblings, and a particularly friendly sheep ambled up to the fence and stuck her nose through the fence slats for a scratch.
“Oh my gosh,” Marika said, her hand to her heart. “This sheep has Snowball Dirty-Ears’s soul. She’s Snowball reincarnated.” Marika seemed sure of it. With the big eyes and floppy ears of the sheep, I could see the resemblance to the rabbit.
Our parents left us there, crouched by the fence, as they explored the rest of the farm. They knew we wouldn’t be coaxed away, even though we knew there were horses, our number one favorite animal, still to see. That day, Marika wanted to stay there with Snowball Dirty-Ears’s soul, the one she had lost so tragically. She wanted to stay there for a little bit longer, and because I was her best friend, I would stay with her for as long as she needed.
The year we lived in the attic of your parent’s apartment, the wasps moved in. You were renovating like always, and there was a hole in the house where you were turning a porch into a room, and so the wasps came. Flying through the kitchen, while I poached us eggs. I soon became friends with the wasps and named them all. There was Hila, and Windy, and Lila, Daphne, Nelson, and Beech. Beech was my favourite and she would tell me secrets small as her body, the taste of wood pulp mixing with saliva as you build a nest, how larvae in their combs can eat insects, like ants, but also love the sweet nectar of a blackberry flower. I don’t think you were jealous, but I don’t think you liked the things Beech said to me, you thought they were unnatural and maybe you were right. One day soon after, I came home and found that you and the friend helping you to renovate had taken a broom to the nest and knocked it down from the ceiling. I cried on the floor, and you crouched down next to me, gently passed me a plastic bag with a small piece of comb inside. I held the comb between my fingers, staring at the intricacy of the structure, the perfect hexagons, and I imagined Beech appearing – crawling out of the holes and onto my fingers. Still, years later, I can feel the tickle of her legs running across my knuckles, scurrying to the underside of my palm.
Kate Barss is a queer writer currently living in Toronto. Her work has appeared in The Hairpin, The Awl, Nat.Brut and others. Two of her pieces were recently shortlisted for Room Magazine’s 2017 Short Forms Contest. She is the founder of Girl Crush, an intersectional feminist lecture series, and currently works at Coach House Books.
In our current issue, Rehab, messy stories of trauma and convalescence abound. In this Lost & Found essay from that issue, Adam Wilson finds that in John Berryman’s autobiographical Recovery, the novel’s “messiness dignifies the messiness of its subject.”
John Berryman is best known for two things: The Dream Songs—a series of 385 poems, published in two editions, for which he won, respectively, the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award—and his suicide. In 1972, Berryman jumped off the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis onto the bank of the Mississippi River.
Despite critical adoration, Berryman wasn’t canonized to the same extent as Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath, his copioneers in what came to be called Confessional Poetry. Berryman despised the term, and The Dream Songs—which shifts between first and third person, and which follows a character called Henry, who, according to Berryman, both “is and is not” a stand-in for himself—never quite fit under its rubric. With its freewheeling meter and idiomatic diction, Berryman’s work is less rarefied than Lowell’s and less accessible than Plath’s. So it makes sense that he achieved cult status rather than canonization, the kind of poet who isn’t taught in AP English, but does appear in songs by Nick Cave, Okkervil River, and the Hold Steady.
In 2014, to mark the author’s centennial birthday, FSG reissued Berryman’s Sonnets, 77 Dream Songs, and The [Complete] Dream Songs, as well as a New Selected Poems. Notably absent from this reissue, however, is any of Berryman’s prose, which includes a critical biography of Stephen Crane, a collection of Berryman’s assorted essays and stories, and Recovery, his posthumously published, unfinished, autobiographical novel based on his experiences in treatment facilities for alcoholism.
My edition of Recovery (Thunder Mouth Press, 1993)—found deep in the bowels of the Strand and featuring on its cover a photo of a God-bearded Berryman staring glass-eyed into the camera—includes a foreword by Saul Bellow and an introduction by Philip Levine. Interestingly, neither writer’s remarks contain much comment, if any, on the book they purport to present. Levine even goes out of his way to offer a kind of counter-Berryman to the one we might project onto the author of Recovery. The vibrant and life-loving Berryman he describes would seem to have little in common with the Berryman who wrote, and failed to complete, this grim book. Continue reading
Biên Hòa, Vietnam: 1969
After a week of trying to stomach the gnaw of a toothache, my father checks himself into the dental clinic on base. X-rays and an oral exam reveal an abscess rotting his back molar. The dentist refers to the defective tooth by a number and pumps a pedal to lower the chair in which my father is reclining. He explains anesthesia was expected to arrive weeks ago. The extraction will have to be performed without it. It’s a quickie, the dentist says from behind a lilac paper mask.
The extraction itself is effortless. It is the open, throbbing socket that nauseates my father. His tongue collides with the textured grid of gauze used to dam the blood. As he leaves the clinic in a haze, he gags on the taste of iron and fears swallowing the rest of his teeth.
In the barracks, my father stumbles into bed to sleep off the dizziness. Blood is beginning to shrink the gauze into a prune. He sets himself on his shoulder, careful to avoid choking when he loses consciousness.
Within moments, he is dreaming of walking home from the mess hall. Cloaked in quietude, he hears what sounds like an approaching aircraft. He glances up in time to see a hail of bombs spraying the base. A hundred feet ahead, his friend Marco erupts like a piñata. All that remains of him is two legs running into the night.
My father stirs himself awake. Clutched in his arms is a pillow soaked in blood. Disoriented and pained, he’s convinced he was injured by the barrage of bombs but managed to crawl indoors. This is where his life will end, he concludes. He tries to conjure the curve of my mother’s neck and breasts mid-laugh, the way she pronounces Manuel like it’s the name of an extraordinary planet.
A shriveled knot of gauze protrudes over his bottom lip like a sick cigarette.
Tokyo, Japan: 1970
My father and his buddy Gerald find themselves in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo. They are enjoying two days of Army leave with the duplicitous intent of buying their sweethearts fine jewelry and visiting strip clubs.
Gerald, a native Nebraskan, and my father consider themselves the most attractive men in their unit. They roam halogen lit streets, devouring new forms of technology with their eyes, uncertain what half the billboards suspended in the sky advertise.
My father announces that he needs to find pearls and garnets for his girlfriend, my future mother. Before his deployment, my father surprised my mother with a garnet pendant and a promise to return sane and sound.
Huddled around a window display of diamond earrings, vintage wristwatches, jade bangles, and pearl tennis bracelets, the two men consider their options.
Gerald isn’t sure about his girlfriend’s favorite stones. Does she prefer gold or silver, my father asks.
Gerald shrugs before admitting, “Me and Shana only dated a few weeks before I got shipped off to basic training…”
“You can’t go wrong with pearls,” my father stresses.
Through no coincidence, my father and Gerald share a birthday and were drafted through the selective service lottery. Bad luck marched them out of small-town America into countries they had only glimpsed on the backside of globes.
They duck into a ramen shop and sit side by side at the counter. Instead of chopsticks, they use porcelain spoons, but struggle to maneuver the noodles into their mouths.
“What the fuck are we doing here?” Gerald asks, dropping his spoon into the large bowl in front of him.
My father reminds him of the lap dances they’ll enjoy later that night, the treasure trove of gifts they’ll take home, but most importantly that they’re over 2,500 miles away from the enemy.
“Eat up,” my father says, because the least they can be is full.
Ursula Villarreal-Moura‘s writing has appeared in Washington Square, New South, Bennington Review, Hobart, Nashville Review, and LUMINA, among others. Her nonfiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and one of her stories was long-listed for Best American Short Stories 2015. On Twitter, she’s @Ursulaofthebook.
When writing a novel set in the past, you’re hoping to animate the period, to imagine what might have happened between the historical events that we know are true, or perhaps to even interrogate what it is we recognize as true, and why. As Peter Ho Davies noted in an interview: “I’ve been attracted over time to those little bubbles of history where we just don’t know what went on in that space.” He continues: “The instinct to lay fiction over the top of history… is simply to understand why certain things happened.”
But when writing in a contemporary moment that engages with a particular social, political, or cultural event, you’re writing on a shaky, ever-changing terrain, so you cannot simply lay your fiction atop it. What might have been your foresight may become fact, and so instead of imaginative visionaries we simply become regular old observers. You may be outpaced by history. In some ways, it is impossible to write fiction set in the present moment because the present moment does not exist. We only have the past and the future.
David Bezmozgis, in an essay entitled “The Novel in Real Time,” describes the experience of writing his most recent book, The Betrayers, set in Crimea: “I kept changing when the action was set,” he writes, “constantly pushing the date ahead by another year to coincide with the year of its ultimate publication.” When in 2014 Ukraine and Crimea were suddenly in upheaval, the concerns of his novel in light of the present conflict no longer felt relevant. The events were too urgent to not mention, but with them the plot would no longer work. “The novelist who tackles social and political phenomena,” he writes, “must posit a world and commit to it fully. He cannot merely describe—he must anticipate an outcome, if only a little. If a work of journalism is a solid structure made of facts, the novel is a moral and imaginative leap from atop that structure.”
How a novelist makes that leap, however, is the question, but I think it has to do with the way we create and inhabit the work’s reality. Right now, I’m writing a novel set in Greece, where two major global events are playing out: the financial crisis and the refugee crisis. But a fictional narrative is not a media narrative, nor should it become literary tourism: here is the Acropolis, here is a homeless man, here is a protest march, here is a woman who has lost her job, here is a refugee trying to get to Germany. Here is how the narrative connects them. Yet to ignore these realities seems insular, and ignorant.
Greece presents the novelist, particularly the foreign novelist, with a particular set of complications because it already exists so powerfully in our collective literary imagination, with its ties to both mythology and a classical past. Sometimes these things become overdetermined. For a good few years it seemed impossible for the New York Times to write about the current crisis and not use the words “Greek tragedy” or to invoke the Greek gods. The earlier trope of the dancing Zorba, or of Greece as a place of leisure and spiritual awakening, linked too easily, in the eyes of international media, with the idea of Greeks as lazy freeloaders who do not want to work. Continue reading
Noise. It’s killing. I think this during a concert at the United Irish Cultural Center, San Francisco. The gathering is largely a mix of Irish immigrants and Irish-Americans, over 1,200 of us sitting on metal chairs—clapping, tapping our feet and moving our heads—captivated by the world-renowned Irish musician Sharon Shannon and her band.
The rousing, sometimes melancholy playlist carries me back to my native Ireland. All that history, culture and genius. All those ghosts. All my memories. It’s almost too much. It’s also glorious. Which is saying something because I didn’t want to come to this concert. I didn’t think I could stand any more noise. I was persuaded, however, and here I sit just rows from the stage, consoling myself that at least this is sacred sound.
The other, unholy noise has been coming at me for months, ever since the run up to the US Presidential election and it’s only gotten worse since the Inauguration. The noise so relentless, so deafening, I can’t focus on much of anything else. It doesn’t seem like there is much of anything else. Democracy, humanity, our very planet are at stake. I’m angry, frightened, exhausted, and not a little hopeless. Which is an especially terrible state to be in ever since my first novel published a few weeks ago, a milestone I had hoped would be very different.
At the best of times, writing a book is Atalantan work. Once the novel is sold, however, work of a whole other and no less daunting kind begins. Profit-based work that writers generally aren’t suited to. How to kick to the surface in a sea thick with other books vying for attention? And then how to still have the nerve and stamina to wave our bound labor of love in the salt air alongside all the others and somehow convince readers to pick ours?
Whether we like it or not (not), the onus is on writers to give our books the best visibility possible—ads, social media, events, media guest spots. I don’t like the business side of writing, but in the past I’ve embraced my lot and worked hard at publicity and marketing for as Emerson wrote, nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. But these loud days I barely have enough energy and concentration to answer emails, let alone muster the needed zeal to pull off a successful debut novel campaign. Yet I’ve persisted as best I can. I’ve learned that the dream isn’t so much to publish the book, but to make the book matter.
For all these reasons I’ve shown up every day to try to get my book into as many readers’ hands as possible, but it’s required every ounce of me, and it’s taking its toll. I’m hearing this from other writers, readers, and artists too, in person and across social media. Particularly writers of fiction. Amidst the world’s ever-mounting chaos and tyranny what does my speck of a made-up book matter? It seems frivolous, self-indulgent, even immoral—this solitary practice of pretending and then this conflicted push to get my book read. It’s adding to noise that’s already too much. It’s taxing everyone’s already burdened bandwidth, including my own. Shut up, I want to shout. Me. You. The growing confederacy of demagogues. Everyone. Please shut up.
The noise I make should be cries of resistance, not of read me. I should be taking greater action to save democracy, and the world. What of the small acts? What of the common wisdom that stories foster empathy and connection and are transformative and necessary? What of marching, signing petitions, phoning government, and making donations? Does any of it matter nearly enough? Just as I think this angst is going to drive me from my chair, and from the concert, Sharon Shannon plays a mesmerizing slow air on her accordion—melodious music that’s intended for listening, rather than singing and dancing. Her eyes are closed, her expression beatific. Her pale, sinuous arms open like a swan’s wings right as it scores the surface of the water and her instrument follows, stretching its pleated, red innards to the last and making the most enthralling sound. She’s playing with her every fiber. She’s giving us the greatest, most powerful part of her. Another jolt cuts through my insides. Writing is my greatest, most powerful part.
The concert ends. There’s a standing ovation and reverberating applause. We get louder, swept up in an exuberant, rising swell, adding to a night of noble noise. I feel more energized, more purposeful, than I’ve felt in months. I’ve been unraveled, but not undone. I’ll recover and I’ll return, stronger, louder. I won’t, I can’t, shut up. Tyrants silence because they know the power of their detractors’ noise. Humanity has to be noisier. We have to make bigger, better kinds of commotion using our greatest, most powerful parts. If the din is right enough, necessary enough, it will save us.
In this I hope.
We drank together for a sonnet’s worth of years. Our bible invited toxic ablutions of thirst, tumblers full of prayers. It seemed like nothing could ever be consumed enough. But that’s the boring part of the story.
She was the girl with a dark smudge on her cheek. When we were children, we dug up worms and put them in jars with leaves and dirt and pink flower petals. It was nice, how we liked to get down on the ground together. We twisted our fingers under the humid summer soil, pinching squirmy, desperate creatures. Sometimes she had to use both hands to yank a night crawler out of the mud. The tenacity of life was beyond us.
We walked the sidewalks of our small Iowa town in jean cutoffs with no shirts on. We’d reach into bags of potato chips with our dirty fingers and eat handfuls as if we were starving gourmands. The world’s elements all blended together without borders. Now, I have a bottle of hand sanitizer on my desk to squirt on bacterial invasions after I shake hands with another person. My fingers know plastic, stainless steel. My fingers write checks to others to get dirty for me.
We cut each other’s hair when we were seven with our dull kid scissors. We couldn’t get our bangs anywhere close to even, but we kept cutting, and we kept cutting. The futility of it was somehow fulfilling. It was more intimate than sex. We gazed into each other’s eyes as we sliced parts of ourselves away.
We never had enough money. We always wanted more. We traipsed from house to house and raked people’s yards for $5. I remember the toasty scents of the leaves as we burned them in a bonfire, the flames leaping about in a rash fit, looking for hell. I pretended the rifled columns of smoke tumbling up into the sky were bombs going off on a battlefield.
The summer before our junior year, one of her incisors chipped when we were swimming at the lake, and formed itself into a single, piercing point. It looked like a fang. It cut across my tongue when we kissed. Sometimes it caught on my lips. I waited for it, always.
We talked about rationality. Coherence. We talked about making clear decisions.
“My dear,” I said.
“My dearest dear,” she responded.
“What kingdom should we conquer?”
“What bed shall we lie in?”
I once watched as a beetle walked the length of her arm. Her parents met when they waited tables in a mental institution’s dining hall one summer. “I come from madness,” she joked. She wrote love songs in her pajamas. She had a three-legged dog named Keith Richards.
Our kitchen that final summer, tinged with sparkler smoke and the sticky smell of beer. She told me I needed a name that sounded more important, so she started calling me Etheridge.
Everything can change so unexpectedly.
Once, she asked me how the world would burn, as if that were somehow inevitable, necessary, an expectation embedded in each disciplined pump of our hearts.
“Naturally, we all fall to pieces,” she said.
I ponder this phrase.
Now, I brush my teeth, I rub sanitizer on my hands, I exercise three times a week. I’ve forgotten how many lines are in a sonnet. I can’t remember if it’s 12 or 14 including the couplet. No matter. I like to live in those final two lines, the place where passion resides, separate from the rest of it all, a lonely and everlasting climax.
Grant Faulkner is the executive director of National Novel Writing Month and the cofounder of 100 Word Story His stories have appeared in dozens of literary magazines, including the The Southwest Review, 14 Hills, Green Mountains Review, and Puerto del Sol. His essays on creativity have been published in The New York Times, Poets & Writers Magazine, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. He recently published a collection of one hundred 100-word stories, Fissures, two of which are included in The Best Small Fictions 2016. His book of essays on creativity, Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo, is forthcoming from Chronicle Books in the fall of 2017.
Why Harp On It
In the stillness of dawn when the air hangs back and you plunge your hand
into the bottomless dark of a jasmine
bush when roosters crack the day open under a slurry sky and you’ve
forgotten why you’re awake
and don’t know why you’re thinking of the time you gave the go-ahead
for your mother’s shock treatments and she came out
blank and ironical unable to squeeze orange juice and you poured her a drink
and she said Thank you I am very tired
and you were moving to Sioux City and didn’t have time to say good-bye
and for a couple of years lives in a motel
and ate Chinese-Mex and screwed a young carhop who neede
the money for her rattled
child and you’d wake at dawn with your deepest bones
aching like you’d gotten old before your time and there was no way
to be sure of anything and wood rats
pocket gophers golden bears heath hens blue walleyes thicktail chubs
beach mice dire wolves catahoula
salamanders and Xerces Blue butterflies were already gone from the earth.
Charlie Smith‘s most recent books are Jump Soul: New and Selected Poems and Ginny Gall. He lives in NYC and Key West.
When bookseller Rachel Kaplan of Avid Bookshop read an advance copy of Rabbit Cake many months ago, she loved it so much she invited author Annie Hartnett to come down to Athens, Georgia for an event. At long last, Rabbit Cake is on the shelves and Annie is Georgia-bound—but first she caught up with Rachel to talk about dark humor, her writing headspace, and reading like it’s a competitive sport.
Annie will be at Avid Bookshop (with rabbit cake, cocktails, and Rachel’s very real rabbit Thumper) in Athens, Georgia on April 6 at 6:30pm.
Rachel Kaplan: Part of why I love Rabbit Cake so much is because of its dark humor. Was it difficult to write a comical book about death and grieving?
Annie Hartnett: Well, dark humor is my go-to mode, I think. I come by it honestly – it’s always been like that in my family, finding the funny in the sad or terrible. There’s a story I’ve told in a few other interviews, that my uncle put my new boyfriend in a headlock at my grandfather’s wake, right next to the open casket. When my uncle heard me tell that story, he said: “I don’t remember that at all, and I bet your grandfather wouldn’t stand for that.” Badum-ching.
RK: Do you have any writing process idiosyncrasies?
AH: I don’t do it right now, but when I was writing Rabbit Cake, I would listen to the same five Dolly Parton songs before I started writing. Those songs always got me into the right headspace. But I think my next book needs its own artist. Maybe Prince…or Seal. I love Seal.
RK: Animals are clearly very important to you. Did you have any formative experiences that shaped your relationship to them? Or, what’s a favorite memory of a childhood pet?
AH: Growing up, we had a dog and a rabbit. I loved the dog, but the rabbit was mine, not a family pet. His name was Rockafella Quintin Bunnybun, and he hated my older brother. Rocky would run at my brother with his mouth open, ready to bite, but Rocky let me hold him like a baby. And my brother always used to joke that Rocky ran a drug cartel out of my bedroom. We were weird kids.
RK: If you weren’t already married, which literary figure would you trade vows with?
AH: Oh god, I’d never marry a writer. But I’m trying to think of a juicy answer… I think it would have to be a woman… Amy Hempel? We could collect dogs and she is very beautiful.
In 2013 I met the cartoonist, writer, teacher, and artist Lynda Barry at a writing conference in Cleveland, OH. I’d been a fan of Lynda’s ever since I read her magnificent novel Cruddy in 1999. That book led me to her comics, which always seemed to pull emotions out of me that I didn’t know were there. Her work has a way of capturing moments so that they feel like your own memories.
I was at the conference to teach. Lynda was teaching too, a combination art and writing class with the talented author Dan Chaon. My group met in the classroom next to theirs each morning. I had great students and we did good work together that week, but every once in a while there would be a burst of laughter from the room next door—and I would long to put an ear to the wall.
At the time, I was working on a novel called The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley. The book is a complicated story, weaving back and forth through time and following two characters—an ex-criminal named Samuel Hawley who carries twelve scars on his body, each from a bullet that nearly took his life, and his daughter Loo, a teenager trying to uncover the truth about her mother’s mysterious death. I’d found connections between the story I was trying to tell and the myth of Hercules (another violent man seeking redemption after the loss of his wife), and liked the idea of bringing elements of that ancient hero into my novel. But I was having second thoughts. I wasn’t an expert of any kind on the Classics, and the whole concept felt way beyond my talent and reach. Every time I opened my manuscript, I saw only flaws and mistakes. And yet here I was in Cleveland, trying to show other people how to write.
At the conference, each teacher was asked to give a lecture on their process. I enjoyed sitting in the audience, slipping back into the role of student. Lynda Barry’s talk was on the human brain and creativity. Adjusting her horn-rimmed glasses and tucking a strand of exuberant, curly hair into her red bandanna, Lynda asked: why do we stop drawing? When we’re children, drawing is a natural extension of our selves. It’s how we communicate before we even have language. Put any kid in front of a box of crayons and there is no self-consciousness. They just grab their favorite color. We stop drawing, Lynda said, when we learn to judge and criticize. When we realize that our scribbles do not match the images we are trying to capture. And, perhaps even more important, when we start noticing that someone else’s drawing is better than ours. We’re told by others (or decide for ourselves) that we are not “good” at art. And so eventually—we stop. And that joyous part of the human brain that flares and sparks when we doodle goes silent.
Why do we only do things that we’re good at? What would happen if you picked up a pen right now? Lynda encouraged us all to try. As we giggled and drew pictures of batman, she talked of how doodling could re-ignite parts of our mind and memory. Doodle on a regular basis, she said, and that spark of creativity could turn into a roaring fire. Continue reading
“I realized from that moment on, I would be, if you want to use the word, a junkie,” wrote legendary jazz saxophonist Art Pepper of his first time using heroin in 1950. “That’s what I practiced; and that’s what I still am. And that’s what I will die as—a junkie.”
These words appear about a quarter of the way into Pepper’s explosive memoir, Straight Life, a 500-page tome that defies conventional narratives about addiction. Unlike so many tales of this genre—and I’ve read many—Straight Life offers no redemption. There is no grand epiphany. There is only the unsettling truth: Pepper’s awareness that he would be a dope fiend for the rest of his days.
My interest in Pepper’s story comes from two corners of my life. I’m married to an alto player who counts Pepper as an inspiration. My husband was a teenager in Israel when he first heard one of Pepper’s recordings. “He played like Charlie Parker, but less frantic,” Uri told me. “He was part of the West Coast jazz scene, which was mellower and less fiery than bebop.” Like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, Pepper had a distinctive sound and style. Uri also observed that all three men were heroin addicts: “Drugs created extremes in their emotions and that came out in the music. It made them feel more confident. It was almost like they said, ‘I’m going to sacrifice my body so I can play a great gig.’”
The willingness to sacrifice one’s body in order to mask insecurities or numb painful feelings isn’t unique to these jazz greats. I’ve heard similar stories before. For five and a half years, I worked in the communications department of a drug treatment organization. One of my responsibilities was to interview former “clients” who had come through the program and to shape their memories into first-person testimonials. Each story was different, but I began to notice a common arc: troubled childhood, introduction to drugs, substance abuse, rock bottom, treatment, and eventual sobriety. Their paths were anything but easy—some fell off the wagon several times before treatment finally “took”—but the main message was one of hope: Recovery was tough, but possible.
This sense of hopefulness is noticeably absent from Pepper’s memoir, which he co-wrote with his wife, Laurie. Like me, Laurie acted as the interviewer. She met Pepper in the late ’60s at Synanon, the infamous California rehab known for its questionable treatment methods and cultish environment: Residents were divided into “tribes” of about sixty people, including “elders” who had been at the facility for years; anyone who broke the strict, ever-changing rules of the place risked a head shaving, a nighttime dorm raid, and other forms of public humiliation and collective punishment. Laurie was a fellow addict. The two quickly became lovers. She discovered Pepper was a natural storyteller, and it was her idea to collaborate on a book. “I knew I couldn’t write this story,” she recalled. “And I knew it would lose too much, it would lose Art, if it were written at all.” Instead, she felt the best format would be a kind of “oral history.”
Over a period of two years, she tape-recorded Pepper as he recounted his unhappy youth; his entry into the jazz scene as a teenage virtuoso; his failed marriage to his first love, Patti; his drug abuse; and his time in prison. It took her another four or five years to edit the material and piece together the anecdotes into cohesive chapters. Interspersed with Pepper’s words are magazine profiles, album reviews, photos, and interviews with family, friends, and fellow musicians. These accounts sometimes match—and other times contradict—Pepper’s take on events.
The result is a kaleidoscopic, engrossing autobiography that presents Pepper as the “junkie,” and the genius, he truly was. At times while reading, I loathed him. His sexual obsessions and predatory behavior are revealed in graphic, and often pornographic, detail. Equally disturbing are the chapters about his second wife, Diane, who decides the only way she can stay with him is to take up heroin herself. Pepper narrates a scene in which they were strung out for days: “On about the fifth day, I came to… I looked down at my clothes and they were covered with blood. I wondered if I had killed her, Diane, in my delirium, to be rid of her. I panicked and ran into the other room, but there she was, alive, lying on the floor amidst the broken bottles.” He shows no remorse for leading Diane down this destructive path, insisting, as if it were an excuse, that he never really cared for her.
While Pepper’s arrogance and anger leap off the page, I didn’t hate him by the end. To the book’s great credit, Pepper comes through as fully human. We see moments of vulnerability when he discusses his youth with a mother who didn’t want him and a tough-minded father who was incapable of showing affection. We observe his lifelong passion and innate musical talent (he never practiced), even during some of the lowest moments of his addiction. And we see his tender side when he describes the early, blissful days with Patti, and years later, with Laurie. His capacity to love and to be loved offers him—and the reader—a glimmer of light in the darkness, even if it is fleeting.
Rehab didn’t come close to saving Art Pepper, but love did. “Laurie pushed me, in music, and she took care of a lot of things I couldn’t deal with,” he writes of his return to the jazz scene after years of jail and treatment. Between the book’s publication in 1979 and his death in 1982, he experienced a surge of productivity and recorded more albums than he had during his entire career. Pepper’s success in his final years is as much Laurie’s triumph as it is his. In addition to co-authoring the book, she arranged his shows, took his calls, and accompanied him on tours. She knew he was still using, yet she empowered him to be the best version of himself. Perhaps that’s why Straight Life resonates more than any addiction story I’ve ever read or written: It’s not about getting clean, but becoming who we are meant to be.
Kate Schmier holds an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. She was the recipient of an Elizabeth George Foundation grant for emerging writers. Her writing has appeared previously on “The Open Bar” and is forthcoming in Apogee Journal. She lives in New York City with her husband, a jazz saxophonist.
There was this girl, a friend. I like her, she’s cute. She was into this guy at a party. She pointed him out then huddled in a little circle with her two friends I’d just met, over by the Christmas lights. It was like they were going to draw a pentagram on the floor, and that’s how she was going to get him. And if they spoke to anyone else at the party, it would break the spell. I wanted to leave the party and wanted someone to come with me. I was respectful, but it was like my needs versus how long their spell was going to take. He looked more my type than hers, anyway. My friend wants too much of them, doesn’t know how to just want them for one night.
He had a shaved head. He wore a very clean white t-shirt and blue jeans. He had diamond studs in his ear. Earrings are not my favorite. If he’d been white, it would have been a no deal with the earrings.
Me and boy tried to go to a bar on Hollywood but the bouncer said fella was too casually dressed. This was bullshit. We knew the code. All the white people from Los Feliz were over. They always parked with their cars a foot into my building’s driveway, like just a little bit is okay. We backtracked and went up to his room and drank his roommate’s room temp Taiwanese beers and fucked. His apartment was across the street from the party. About halfway through I started to get tired. I knew I wasn’t going to come, just one of those nights that are always during week 2 of my pill. When he finally said, “You want my cum,” or something tacky like that, I was like, “Yeah,” and I meant it as in Hurry Up. I left, the guy passed out, and my friend was down in the parking lot, standing in a circle with her coven from the party. I took out a cigarette and then all three asked for one because they don’t actually smoke. I was like, Fuck, but also, I’m nice, so I handed them out like a GI giving Baby Ruths to kids in Berlin.
What had they been up to?
“Oh, we ate some chicken and now we’re going to Toni’s place.” Toni was one story up from the guy who was now passed out. “You coming up?”
So we were up at Toni’s and just nothing was happening. It was like watching water go down a drain but no whirlpool. Everything’s about to be gone and there isn’t even a show. My friend mentioned the guy. I felt like a spy. They lived in this world without men because they hated men. And they were right. They were too smart for the boys. But for some reason they resented that superiority. There was nothing I could do for them. Superiority is ace. Rabid desire is pure and good. Drowning is a sport.
They were all drinking wine but I wanted a beer because wine gives me headaches. I’d be right back. There was a 7-11 over on Sunset where I bought a forty and some Cool Ranch Doritos. When I got back to Toni’s and knocked, nobody answered. I could hear music from inside. I knocked again.
Somebody from downstairs, standing on the balcony, shouted, “Fucking cut that out.”
I leaned way over the railing and looked down. It was the guy. His boxers were on. I hadn’t noticed his chestpiece. “Hey, baby,” I said. “My friends locked me out.”
“Some friends,” he said. He turned and went out of view. I heard a door slam just as Toni’s door opened and I went back in.
My friend said, “Yay, you’re back!” and put her hands up in the air like a gymnast at the Olympics. We sat and they ate all my chips and we laughed when the white girl on the TV indicated we were to do so.
“You guys wanna go back out?”
I wanted to leave. What was guy’s apartment number. My body was catching up. I’d carried upstairs with me the sum of all his parts, and I wanted him now in his absence.
Downstairs, the stars were aligned. I got his door right. “People keep waking me up,” he said.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hi,” he said.
“I keep waking you up. It’s only been me, all this time.”
I clunked the forty down on his table and closed the door. I got my hands back around him, grabbed his ass, pushed up on his crotch. His jeans and shirt had looked all starchy and brand-new, but his boxers were worn out. Everything was soft and gentle and inviting underneath.
“Hold on,” he said.
“Come on,” I said. “What.”
“I don’t think I can get it up again.”
I took his hand and we went into his room. It was warm and still inside. He was right, he wasn’t getting it up. I told him to fuck me with the neck of one of the empty beer bottles from earlier while I rubbed one out. Not the forty. That was still on the table, half-full. He was really concerned, like, Is this too far? My pill makes me super dry but I had some of him from earlier so he got the bottle in pretty far. He said he’d never done this before, and I told him I hadn’t either. It was that stretch of the night just for honesty. Upstairs, the world was closing in, but down here, the world opened up around me, within me, and for me.
Bridget Chiao Clerkin is originally from Southern California and currently lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with her husband and three children. She has an MFA from the University of California, Irvine.
Oh Mary we will probably not live
To see the next century’s nineties.
Our century’s nineties were grand.
They were ok. They were before
The End Times and Now
I’m in a fit about not ever getting to find out if our nineties were better
And now now
I have this crown imperial to put in your hair and then to put in my hair and
then to trade several times so
We can both see how being with a beautiful thing looks
Like the magician I was seeing before
Slavery got all popular again. He would find a currency
From the vicinity of my ear and I
Would tell him to let it collect a little
Interest. Beautiful rascal, beautiful
Marquis, beautiful got your nose, beautiful time and hat and we were
In the company collecting a garnishment, in the company now
Tulips are again collecting interest.
Cody Carvel grew up in Oklahoma and Texas. He has degrees in English and African-American Studies from Harvard and an MFA from USF.
It is both and honor and thrill to introduce you to our inaugural class of winter workshop scholars. All three of these remarkable writers inspired us, both on and off the page, and we could not be more excited to follow their voices in the years to come.
C Pam Zhang’s fiction is in or coming to Black Warrior Review, Gulf Coast, The Missouri Review, The Offing, Tin House Open Bar, and elsewhere. An Aspen Words Emerging Writer Fellow and a Hambidge Center Distinguished Fellow, she was recently a runner up in The Missouri Review Editors’ Prize and an honorable mention in the Zoetrope Short Fiction Contest. She’s not quite sure where home is, but lives online @cpamzhang.
Jessica Guzman Alderman is a Cuban-American writer from southwest Florida. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Copper Nickel, Sycamore Review, The Normal School, BOAAT, and elsewhere. She received her MFA from West Virginia University and currently studies as a doctoral student at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers. She reads for Memorious.
Ana Owusu-Tyo has a master’s degree in eighteenth-century literature from Indiana University. She is Spanish and Ghanaian and currently lives far away from her native Brooklyn on ten acres in rural North Carolina where she raises her three children and chickens. She is finishing a memoir about losing a daughter and beginning a novel inspired by the spirits on the former plantation she lives on. An excerpt of her memoir, Footnotes, has recently appeared in the anthology Stories that Need to be Told. She is also semi insta-famous for her crochet and recently learned to do a headstand in the middle of the room.
I first picked up Barbecued Husbands and Other Stories from the Amazon as a nineteen-year-old who had just moved to New York City and was browsing through the stacks at Housing Works. In the book’s introduction, anthropologist Betty Mindlin says, “We need only to learn how to fish in the deep waters of Brazilian origins and not push aside the myths as incomprehensible.” As a white teenager from a small town in Pennsylvania, the deepfishing metaphor left me scratching my head, but the latter half of the sentence made perfect sense. The seemingly “incomprehensible”—from mythologies that twist and turn in labyrinthine plots to surrealism, to postmodernism and magical realism—fascinate me. In the writing I love, and in the tales I found in Barbecued Husbands, fish swim in rainy air, lizard women with green-tinted skin keep house, and dirty-winged angels fall from the sky to no great reception—of course they can and do. Why else but for such magic would you bother to tell a story?
I took the book home with me, reading it on the subway. A young man began talking to me, asking me what I was reading without looking at the cover. I delighted in telling him the stories of brazen women living boldly, rejecting men and their desires and needs—and neglected telling him the revenge exacted on almost all of them for such deeds. The young man left the train uncomfortably at his stop; I continued reading.
The stories collected and retold in this anthology (with credit to their tellers) are both fantastical and completely grounded in the timeless stuff of human relationships. What on the surface appears to be a story about a woman whose clitoris grows so long it drags on the ground after she takes a spirit lover is also a story about a woman who is punished for the great crime of not being attracted to her husband. Underwater spirits and their beautiful songs lure women to dance and sing rather than make chica, and husbands are roasted one by one in the titular story—a tale of wives who have strayed from their domestic duties and eventually face the vengeance of their spouses. These stories are ancient and extraordinarily contemporary.
And yet it is the details—the woman who turns into a boa constrictor, the woman who spurns her husband for a wooden dildo, the beautiful bird which transforms into a woman for a lonely young man, the tree a young man falls in love with because women won’t have him—that make these stories of love, lust, jealousy, and revenge fresher than many contemporary works. In the spirit that lives by the wayside I see echoes of David Mitchell; in the myriad forms revenge takes I see Flann O’Brien’s army of one-legged men coming after a murderer in his dreams. Continue reading