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My parents go to Bogota and come back with an emerald and a child. I already have an older sister and a baby brother. The new child was supposed to be three but he’s seven like me. My mother tells us that during their first meal he ate a chicken leg including the bone. They didn’t realize until it was gone.
One night my parents leave us with a babysitter and a lima bean casserole. I decide we should feed my new brother all of it. He eats bowl after bowl as our babysitter looks on. I wait for her to stop us but she just laughs.
We move from the Midwest to New York. My body’s too soft to endear or protect me and I talk too much in class. Eventually I make friends until half-jokingly I propose to another girl with a paper ring. Then I’m banished again. My brother’s English is still rough and he ends up in the slow class. He throws rocks at kids’ heads, comes home with papers scratched with red. We forge a fierce bond over our outsider status. We hide in the loft eating forbidden cheese doodles, whispering that our parents love our golden siblings more than us.
When we’re teenagers, our parents divorce and our commiseration morphs into cruelty. These things are concurrent but not connected. We know exactly how to hurt each other most.
You’re a fat ugly bitch. No one likes you.
Go back to Colombia where you belong. You were never wanted.
One night, when my mother’s at her boyfriend’s, my brother runs out of words. He jumps on me, hands smashing my breasts, forearm across my mouth. I escape, run to my room and slam the door, pressing hard against it. He grabs his Boy Scout knife and stabs at the wood again and again until my heartbeat matches the rhythm.
My brother moves into my father’s house. I don’t visit when he’s there. Once, I accidentally use his toothbrush and gag until I hyperventilate. I finish high school; he goes to a residential program. I go to college; he gets a job cleaning carpets. We write each other letters: I’m sorry. I forgive you. You’re the only one that understood me. I didn’t mean to hurt you. I’m sorry.
His girlfriend gets pregnant and they get married in my mom’s backyard. I make their wedding cake. It’s three tiers, covered in buttercream and pink roses and only slightly lopsided. I don’t eat it because I consider eating a weakness, but I pose for pictures holding it out, my biceps straining under its weight.
When his daughter is four, my stepmother is giving her a bath and finds bruises dotting her spine. An investigation shows they are not my brother’s doing, but his home is deemed unsafe. His daughter moves in with my dad but does not move out. I go to graduate school, where my days are fueled by salads and sugar-free popsicles. I whittle myself away until one day I hear a doctor joke to a nurse, “I gave her a shot in the ass. Trust me, that’s no anorexic.” What’s the point of starving if you’re still here? I start eating again.
My brother gets divorced but gets his ex pregnant again. My parents are angry but unsurprised. I think they constantly re-play the day they stood at the orphanage door, a too-old child staring back at them wide-grinned, half-toothless—only this time they shake their heads, murmur sorry, sorry, before walking away.
I meet “the one” at thirty-five and within six months we’re engaged. I ask my parents if I should invite my brother to the wedding. They say no, it would just be a burden, he’d have to worry about an outfit, a gift. These aren’t reasons but I accept them as such.
We see each other on holidays but seldom in-between. He has a third kid with someone new. We become friends on Facebook, message occasionally. I have two kids. My three-year-old son gets very sick and ends up in the hospital. When I’m sure he’ll live I write an emotional status update. My brother messages me within minutes.
Why didn’t anyone tell me?
I barely told anyone.
Everyone else knew?
I’m not really part of this family.
I am never included; I just want to be included.
I invite him to my daughter’s first birthday. He comes and brings his youngest daughter. I make a cake in the shape of the hungry caterpillar, segment after segment of half domes connecting to form a body. There’s a buffet, including a pile of fried chicken. My brother helps himself and sits down with the rest of our family. He holds up a drumstick, smiles, then eats silently. When he’s done, a pile of bones lay on his plate, stripped bare of meat and skin.
Heather Osterman-Davis‘ work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction; Time; Slate; River Teeth; Brain Child; Literary Mama; Mothers Always Write; and Tribe among others. She’s currently working on a memoir about her very alternative, exceedingly normal family. Heather can be found on Twitter @heatherosterman
Horoscope for the Past
My godmother looked most at ease smoking.
She didn’t have that flair for French cinema,
angled wrist, rolling paper held delicately
as a question. It made it easier to breathe,
to be my godmother. She didn’t care
how the sun is held so capably, the bridge
bears its weight or the pomegranate wrinkles.
She only wanted to impart her pagan breed
of Christianity, how next year would unfold
under some celestial phenomenon.
She was happiest talking electional stars,
auspicious at some hour, indifferent at the next.
Each prediction, unveiled to us like a painting.
We grew to who we were, benign and fearing.
She never mentioned the influence of arrogance,
steady drag of untruth through light. Didn’t see
the family zodiac twisting, a sprig burned slowly
in ceremony. Instead, a noble and endurable
suffering, melodic complaint of ewes in white fields.
Not the mirror’s contradiction in a corner
of the sky, her tongue thick with planets and ash.
Maya Catherine Popa is a writer and teacher in NYC. A 2015 Ruth Lilly finalist, she is the recipient of the Poetry Foundation Editor’s Prize for review. Her writing appears in Poetry, The Times Literary Supplement, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Her chapbook The Bees Have Been Canceled was recently published by DIAGRAM New Michigan Press. She is a member of the English faculty and oversees the Christine Schutt Creative Writing Program at the Nightingale-Bamford School in New York City.
From the newest issue, Issue 71: Rehab, comes Alix Ohlin’s tale of rehabilitating her own reading life, helped along by Barbara Trapido.
Last winter, I found myself deep in gloom, mired in some combination of stress and exhaustion and crappy weather that added up to a vague but intractable sadness, the worst symptom of which was that I stopped reading for pleasure. I never stopped reading completely—for a writer and teacher of writing, that’s not possible—but my reading was mechanical and professionalized and rote. It was a terrible feeling. I’d always been able to lose myself in books, a loss that paradoxically gave me back myself, and without that ability the world grew a little grayer each day. Sometimes I sat and concentrated on a beautiful sentence by a writer I loved, and I could see the beauty but not feel the pleasure, the kind of palpable, almost bodily enjoyment that had made books so important to me in the first place.
Instead of reading—look, I’m not proud of this—I watched hours of sitcoms, usually sitcoms I had already seen. They didn’t even make me laugh. I mainly wanted to be reassured that someone, somewhere, was laughing regularly, at thirty-second intervals, even if it wasn’t me. And there was something comforting, of course, about the familiarity of the sitcom structure itself, its dependable resolutions and repetitions, everything wrapped up in twenty-two minutes, only to begin again in the next episode.
In this dreary state I came upon Barbara Trapido’s Brother of the More Famous Jack, originally published in 1982 and recently reissued by Bloomsbury. I flipped to the first page and, to my surprise, sank into it with unselfconscious enjoyment. I read the first chapter almost without breathing, not wanting to disrupt the spell, and then the whole book. When I finished it, I was a person who loved reading again.
How did she do it? Trapido’s sentences are pleasure palaces, meaning they are both intensely pleasurable to read and are about pleasure of many kinds: sexual, intellectual, aesthetic. Brother of the More Famous Jack is narrated by Katherine, a beautiful, artsy girl from the suburbs who likes to make her own clothes (“I can knit prodigious landscapes into my jerseys”). As she begins university, she falls under the thrall of her philosophy professor, Jacob Goldman, and his large bohemian family.
“‘I’ll be frank with you,’” Jacob says to Katherine on their first meeting. “‘I had you up here because your Head’s report on you is so unfavourable, it leads me to suspect that you may be somewhat brighter than the Head. You may of course be no more than an opinionated trouble-maker. Which do you think you are?’ He fixed me under his black horsehair eyebrows with what I took to be smouldering animosity.”
Scene after scene unspools with this kind of dialogue, barbed, electric, and energizing. The characters ping-pong against one another, all of their confrontations refracted through Katherine’s voice, which is smart without being smart-alecky and vulnerable without being timid. She is also candid and clear-eyed on the subject of sex lives, whether it’s her own (losing her virginity to an older, bisexual man) or that of Jacob and his wife (who is about to bear their sixth child).
Though she gets involved with Goldman’s son Roger, Katherine also loves and is loved by Jacob, his wife, Jane, and their other children in various and meaningful ways. The novel is a kind of polymorphous romantic comedy whose perversities all resonate. Eventually Katherine leaves the Goldmans behind and goes off to Italy, where some terrible things happen to her. I won’t spoil the book by saying what they are, but I will note that Trapido writes about loss and pain, both emotional and physical, with the same blunt concision that she brings to sex and romance, so that the breezy momentum of the book is never disrupted even as the experience of the characters flips from light to dark.
It’s a pretty astonishing thing to be able to do. Part of how she’s able to achieve it is through Katherine’s voice, its insistently propulsive, conversational quality. Trapido honed this style by writing much of the book, which was her first novel, in her head. Born in South Africa, she moved to London in her early twenties, married a man who became an Oxford don, had two children, and came to writing late. In the foreword to Brother of the More Famous Jack, Maria Semple describes Trapido working in the middle of the night, often speaking the dialogue out loud, over and over, so that by the time she was ready to type, she had the book almost memorized.
Other parts of Trapido’s technique are compression and witty description; one character sends another a cake so large it “appeared to be suffering the effects of hormone treatment.” Katherine takes a dislike to someone because he blows his nose too politely and “made a point of carving meat with a formidable show of expertise.” The book is always funny even when it’s not at all happy, a distinction that becomes shattering when Katherine’s pain takes center stage.
I’ve read my way through all of Trapido’s books now—Bloomsbury is in the process of republishing them—and it’s clear that she is a scholar of comedic forms. Many of her novels are framed around narrative allusions to classical works, from Shakespeare’s festive and romantic plays to Mozart’s The Magic Flute. What Trapido recognizes is how capacious these forms are, how much darkness they can accommodate; Trapido’s own novels take in ovarian cancer, apartheid, sexual abuse, cervical surgery, HIV, and many other angles on estrangement and loss.
In her 2010 novel, Sex and Stravinsky, Trapido articulates a sort of manifesto about comic forms, through a character who is devoted to early opera:
He likes those stagy assignations in moonlit shrubberies and the constant dropping of love letters in regulation privet hedges where the wrong people are always destined to pick them up. He likes precipitous conclusions in which all is resolved by timely revelation. A telling birthmark. An ancient nun with a very long memory . . . Life redeemed through wit and coincidence, heady plot lines and acrobatic dexterity.
This is not exactly a description of Trapido’s own plot lines, which are shaggy and not always fully resolved, but she does love to bring a cast of characters into orbit and, through acrobatic dexterity, make their intersections matter. Their lives are redeemed but not sanitized; in Sex and Stravinsky, the ripple effects of the adults’ zany actions are, the ending makes clear, going to be felt by their children for a long time. But Trapido’s avowed affection for the comic opera made me think about my own sitcom addiction in a more generous way, both because the rewards of these forms are genuine and because a writer like Trapido can accomplish so much within them.
Since Brother of the More Famous Jack brought me back to pleasure reading, I’ve been pushing it on people with a level of aggression not typical of me. I want other people to share it too, and for Trapido to find a bigger readership in North America. I wonder if Trapido is not better known here because of her particular strain of humor, which is not especially fashionable. It is rich with academic characters and literary allusions, the unabashed Britishness of boarding schools and eccentric intellectuals and young women with precocious vocabularies. Personally, I love all these things and find Trapido’s take on them both charmingly familiar and refreshingly modern. If you, like me, grew up reading Brideshead Revisited and P. G. Wodehouse but live in the twenty-first century and are a feminist, then Trapido’s books are a gift to you, custom-made.
Toward the end of Brother of the More Famous Jack, a man sings Katherine a song by Monteverdi in the street, declares his love, and then takes her to bed, where he looms over her and then pauses “like a compassionate executioner.” The whole sequence is under four pages long, briskly profane, and delightful; I laughed at the straightforwardness of Trapido’s descriptions and at the good-humored sex, one more comic pleasure in a book that’s full of them. Katherine cannot speak for joy. It’s one of the few moments of silence in a talky book, and it made me cry while reading, which is its own pleasure.
Alix Ohlin, a native of Montreal, now lives and writes in Easton, Pennsylvania.
The Rehab Issue is now on newsstands, at your local bookstore, and available online.
Talking to Elena Passarello is like talking to a human Wikipedia, but one that sings and leaps to show its excitement for the subject at hand. Before attending the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa, she worked in theater, and her masterful grasp of her own voice, and her infectious sense of wonder for the world around her, comes through not just in conversation but on the page in all her work. Passarello is an assistant professor of creative nonfiction at Oregon State University, which is where I first came to admire her and her passion for her seemingly disparate interests.
The Whiting Award–winner’s new book, Animals Strike Curious Poses (Sarabande Books), is a gorgeous and peculiar collection of essays about famous animals and the ways we interact with them. I spoke with Passarello about the magic of research, the gendering of personal writing, and how to continue making weird creative work when the world is crashing around us.
JESS KIBLER: I wanted to start by talking about how you decide what to write about, because you write about so many different things. When you start, do you start thinking of a big project? Like with this book, every piece is about an animal, and in the last book, everything was about voices. What’s the genesis?
ELENA PASSARELLO: I haven’t written a piece that wasn’t on assignment or for a collection in almost a decade, because when I was in grad school and was trying a lot of different essays, I kind of realized that they all were about two things: the voice and animals. So I’ve been sort of riding those two trails since I graduated in 2008.
But I think this kind of approach helps me build a tent and then sit under the tent and then think about what essays can belong in the tent. And I make the tent have certain rules. Like, this is “an animal book,” but it’s an animal book where the essays have to be about animals that were given a name. And I can’t repeat species, so I can’t have two dogs or two cats. So I sort of shrink the world and use the rules to sustain me. That’s one of the reasons there are so few invertebrates in the book. I don’t get to fairly represent the entire kingdom because there are so few fish that get names, for example. Same with insects. Anything that doesn’t live very long (or isn’t furry) often doesn’t get named.
I don’t know how I start, because it’s been so long since I actually started a major project, but the smaller starting points within that larger motivation usually come from limitations.
JK: Those are limitations you set on yourself, right? They’re not handed down from an editor?
EP: Yeah. Fiction writers—or maybe I’m generalizing—seem to like the idea of a blank page. My partner, David, is a playwright, and he loves the idea that in the middle of a play, a cat detective can just walk across the stage during a dinner party. He’s like, “What could happen? Anything could happen. A cat detective could walk out.” I think his interest in that high level of possibility comes from the fact that, in theater, there are so many limitations. To do a play, you’re saddled with barriers: a certain amount of time, a certain amount of lights, a small space. So he loves the idea of the impossible showing up. For me, where there’s no limits to what you can make with language, I have to shore up the variables and put a lot of controls in so that I don’t get analysis paralysis from thinking of everything an essay could become.
JK: You use a lot of research in your work, and you’ve talked about it as a way to heighten creativity and craft instead of limiting it. One of my favorite things you do with it, especially in this book, is use it for context. I don’t remember which animal it was, but you describe one animal being discovered and found extinct in the time Roger Moore played James Bond. So why do all that research, and why are you drawn to research-heavy nonfiction?
EP: There are a lot of people who use research without later articulating about what it’s doing. I don’t think I’m breaking any ground when I celebrate what research can do. I think I’m just naming shit that happens naturally. If the major components of a great essay are form, scene, commentary, and some kind of research, then form, scene, and commentary always get all this creative applause. Like, “Experimenting with form can take the essay anywhere!” and “Be creative! Remember the most vivid scene you can and look for killer details!” and “Get artistic with your commentary! Dance around with a scarf!” But then research is just this stack of books on your desk that you turn to if you need to figure something out.
There are so many different ways we can look at research as an equally creative mode, and that Roger Moore example is creative work on the sentence level. The original sentence was, you know, “The gastric brooding frog was both discovered and declared extinct in 12 years.” Twelve years is an abstract term, because nobody really knows what a year is, and 12 years’ time when you’re writing an essay about about centuries worth of extinctions cheapens the value of the sentence even more. So if I can find something ridiculous to represent that time, then the language makes sense; it does that work. That’s an example of using research in a creative way—it makes you a better writer on the sentence level.
It’s such a humbling experience to engage in an act of research. I also love the way that it allows me to sort of geek out and feel like I’m sharing new information, so there’s that selfish motivation. And I think it helps me express things without being personal, which is very important to me, because I rarely flex that personal muscle successfully. It’s not that I discount other people who do, but my engine doesn’t work in that way. I have all the same feelings and emotions as a personal essayist, and I do want to talk about life the way that people who write personally seem to want to talk about life, but my engine just isn’t in that kind of persona creation. In research, however, I think I can do similar work. Continue reading
I guess Tim was right when he said I had it coming. If anyone were going to end up on their way to the stomach of the largest rhinoceros that ever could have lived, it would be me. I didn’t have the best intentions.
I honestly thought it was a dinosaur. I even said that. I said, “Holy shit, that’s a dinosaur.” It wasn’t though. Tim said that he could see its horns and the way its skin folded on its shoulders. “Joe!” Tim yelled. But I was half inside its mouth by that time. I don’t know anything about rhinos, or any other animal for that matter. I don’t like to fill my mind with things I’ll never use. What if the rhino information replaced my how to breathe without thinking about it information? I would be in a worse situation than I am now, and that’s saying something considering I am almost in the stomach of a rhino. Almost, because I am still larger than its abnormally large throat. It’s trying though. I’m making my way there.
My Mom told me a crazy story about my Dad. She said he died because a wild African animal assaulted him. She said this when I was young. Like when your Mom said your Dad was an astronaut and was floating through space collecting data and that he would return a year older, but we would all be dead. Like that. So when I was young I had this vendetta against African animals—all of them because she was never specific. And let’s be honest, when you are ten years old and a boy, African animals are the only kind, so I stopped liking all animals. I glared at the neighbor’s dog. With time I forgot why I hated animals because math and some other stuff I learned in school covered it up. I remember now though because I forgot all the math stuff.
Yes, I’m older and yes I understand that probably didn’t happen, but I was bored and my Dad kind of died even if it was only to me. So, I went to find the animal, or at least what kind of animal. I figured lion. I mean, if your Dad had to die wouldn’t that be a good way? The space thing is cool, but he’s not really dead that way is he?
I thought there would be clues. I thought I would find some guide and he would say, “Oh yes, your father? A legend.” And then he would show me the beast and I would kill it or something. But when I got there all I found was a hotel and hundreds of open jeeps. I was disappointed.
I told my story to other men in the jeep, except for the part where it’s probably not true, and they were all sympathetic and one said the same thing happened to his Dad. That was Tim and I still don’t believe him. After that it was only a few minutes before the rhino thing. It was someone yelling, “Look!” and me looking and then me saying the dinosaur thing and then me feeling really warm and then really depressed. Now that I’m almost in its stomach though it’s not so bad. I can hear Tim yelling at me like he is right up next to the rhino. I yell at him, “Yes, I hear its heart.” The smell is of spicy earth, sharp and green.
I think I can see into the stomach, too. I don’t know what or where else it could be. I think my father might be there. I try to make out shapes, a face in the darkness. The wet heat enters my mouth, forcing its way down my throat. I wonder what is in my own stomach, what quivers so tightly.
The throat undulates softly then in quick bursts. I worry my skeleton won’t hold—the slick muscles pressing my kidneys in close, contorting my neck and hips. I start feeling myself being pulled away by the ankles. I reach my arms forward toward the pit of its stomach, but before I can touch a thing, before I can even dread the trip back up I am already laying on the ground, dryer and cleaner than you would think. I look and see Tim leaning against the rhino, which must have collapsed on its side from all the effort of trying to swallow me. There’s some pride in that. I see that Tim has my shoes in his hands. That was nice of him to pull me out, and I tell him so. He asks, “Do you think that’s what killed your father?” I tell him I think it could be but that it doesn’t really matter since I am sort of sad that I almost killed the rhino. He asks, “Should I call someone?” I tell him, “Yes, this is a pretty big deal,” but I also tell him to wait until the rhino wakes up and can lumber out on its way.
Now that I know this, I wonder about all I’ve forgotten.
Christine Texeira‘s short fiction has appeared in Moss, and The Conium Review. She lives in Seattle, and works at Hugo House.
Tin House invited a select number of early readers to receive advance copies of Rabbit Cake, Annie Hartnett’s much-anticipated debut novel. It’s the darkly funny story of Elvis Babbitt, proud ZooTeen volunteer and Freedom, Alabama resident, who’s figuring out her place in a world without her mother. We caught up with our Galley Club members to talk about the book, how its characters navigate grief, and (most importantly) naked mole rats.
Once, about eight or nine years ago, I caught a glimpse of some wild red currants growing by the side of the road. The road traced the spine of a rolling, lightly wooded hill in West Virginia; my husband and I were on our way home from a wedding, and he was driving—forty, maybe fifty miles an hour—while I half dozed in the passenger seat. But my eyes must have been at least partially open, because I saw the berries dangling behind a thin screen of leaves and branches, glowing in a reaching bit of sunshine. And when I saw them, I felt some enormous thing—a feeling, you could call it for the sake of convenience, though it seemed much more than that—quickly rise in me and then, just as quickly, evaporate.
Twisting in my seat, I watched as the road unraveled behind us, but of course the berries were gone. And although I was strangely sad about this, I didn’t say anything to my husband, because I understood that there was no easy cure for the emptiness I felt; I knew that even if we turned back and found that same spot, those same berries—even if I picked handfuls of the tiny, ruby-red spheres and studied them for the rest of our twelve-hour trip home—whatever it was that had risen in me, then so painfully disappeared, could never be retrieved by such prosaic means.
More recently, I’ve seen red currants, still attached in grapelike clusters to their delicate twiggy stems, at the farmer’s market, where they sell for the incredible price of seven dollars a half-pint. And I have bought the berries, two pints at a time, and stared at them in their green cardboard cartons, and willed that something, that enormous feeling, to come back to me: that emotion which is not quite happy and not quite unhappy, but a fragile mix of both. Continue reading
From the current issue, Rehab, a poem by Kaveh Akbar.
EVERY DRUNK WANTS TO DIE SOBER IT’S HOW WE BEAT THE GAME
Hazrat Ali son-in-law of the prophet was martyred by a poisoned sword
while saying his evening prayers his final words I am successful I am
successful I want to carve it in my forehead I’ve been cut into before
it barely hurt I found my body to be hard and bloodless as
glass still for effect I tore my shirt to tourniquets let me now be
calm for one fucking second let me be open to revision eternity looms
in the corner like a home invader saying don’t mind me I’m just here to watch you nap
if you throw prayer beads at a ghost they will cut through him soft
as a sabre through silk I finally have answers to the questions I taught
my mother not to ask but now she won’t ask them as a child I was so tiny
and sweet she would tuck me in saying moosh bokhoradet a mouse
should eat you I melted away that sweet like sugar in water like once-fresh
honey dripping down a thigh today I lean on habit and rarely unstrap
my muzzle it’s hard to speak of something so gauche as ambition
while the whole wheezing mosaic chips away but let it be known
I do hope one day to be free of this body’s dry wood if living proves
anything it’s that such astonishment is possible the kite loosed
from its string outpaces its shadow an olive tree explodes
into the sky dazzling even the night I don’t understand the words
I babble in home movies from Tehran but I assume
they were lovely I have always been a tangle of tongue and pretty
want in Islam there are prayers to return almost anything even
prayers to return faith I have been going through book after book pushing
the sounds through my crooked teeth I will keep making these noises
as long as deemed necessary until there is nothing left of me to forgive
Kaveh Akbar founded and edits Divedapper. He is the author of the chapbook Portrait Of The Alcoholic and the forthcoming collection Calling A Wolf A Wolf. His poems appear in Poetry, APR, Narrative, FIELD, and elsewhere. Born in Tehran, Iran, he currently lives in Florida.
This poem is one of three of Kaveh’s poems in the current issue of Tin House: The Rehab Issue.
This issue’s cover artist, Yang Cao, focuses his paintings on the capricious nature of human emotion. He abstracts his realistic figures with crowns of clouds or he removes their heads altogether. The results are at once unsettling and relatable as the tone of each painting is uncertain and the audience is left to decipher the mood.
The mercurial subject of our cover painting, Liminal XVII, appears joyful, perhaps surprised: she’s smiling, her cheeks are rosy, but we can’t see her eyes. The top half of her head is swathed in a cotton candy cloud; lightning flashes inside. The pink glow of the storm inside sits at odds with the austere gray-blue of the background.
In an interview with Tussle Magazine, Cao discussed his reasons for the clouds. He said he “like[s] the unpredictability of the cloud. It’s shapeless and changes all the time, it follows the wind and never stays in one form and place. Somehow I find this as a resemblance to our human nature and mind.”
Cao works from life, using photos and models, but he takes a fluid approach to his practice. He considers his process to be one of trial and error, saying, “It’s like looking back to the messy footprints and realizing that I’m making a track, but I don’t yet know where to set my next foot.”
You can see more of his work at www.yangcaoart.com.
Claire Fuller is on a creative roll: by the time we published Our Endless Numbered Days, she had finished writing Swimming Lessons—and now, just a month after Swimming Lessons hit the shelves, she’s completing her next novel. We asked Claire what she does to fuel her creativity and refresh her perspective, and here’s what she taught us—her favorite, flash-style daily writing exercise. Read on, then try it yourself (in 30 words or less) for a chance to win Swimming Lessons plus a signed bookplate!
Swimming Lessons is set beside the sea in Dorset, England. The characters spend a lot of time on the beach and in the water, and so there are lots of descriptions of the sea and the sky in the book. When I was writing it I came across someone on Twitter who posted a daily photograph of the seascape he could see from his window, and I set myself a task to write a description of the sea and the sky every day. Each one had to be different; I had to stretch myself and try not to use clichés. Here are a few:
The sun was already high above the horizon, a metallic glare reflecting on the water, painful, like catching the tine of a fork on a filling. The light made her sneeze.
Puffs of cloud backed-up above the line of the sea, as if a child’s drawing of a steam train had just gone by, passing out of sight beyond the cliffs.
The white sun hid behind a mist of cadmium orange. It shone a path across the plum waves, inviting me to try and walk on water.
And now, it’s your turn. To win a copy of Swimming Lessons, write a description of this seascape in no more than 30 words. Share your description as a comment on the official Facebook post.
The winner will be chosen by Claire Fuller. U.S. entries only. Competition closes March 17, 2017.
Claire Fuller‘s debut novel Our Endless Numbered Days was published by Tin House in 2015 and went on to win the Desmond Elliott prize in the UK and become a finalist in the ABA Indies Choice awards. The book has also been sold in twelve other countries. Her second novel, Swimming Lessons, was published in February 2017. Claire has an MA in Creative and Critical Writing from The University of Winchester, and lives in Winchester, England with her husband and children.
The evening’s downpour still hadn’t ended, and by the time Viktor picked me up, the streets were abandoned except for a few lonesome figures tucked under awnings and into doorways. The boulevard gleamed under the streetlamps. Viktor’s mood must have been affected by the weather, because as he drove me to his apartment, his windshield wipers sloshing back and forth, the cheerful person I knew from the botany lectures we had attended had vanished. In his place was an awkward, distracted stranger who didn’t speak except to remind me to put on my seatbelt. I told myself he was trying to concentrate on the road.
He parked in front of his complex and together we hurried through the gate into a courtyard thick with dripping banana palms and bougainvillea. A defunct stone fountain hunched in the middle, filling up with rainwater. We rounded a corner and a motion-detector bulb flared up in a blinding sputter before conking back out again. I saw then that a peculiar greenish glow radiated from underneath the door of one of the downstairs units. As Viktor led me toward it, I could feel my throat tighten. He slid a key in the lock, pushed the door open.
A wall of emerald light swam toward me.
Once my eyes adjusted, I found myself staring at what resembled the inside of a giant terrarium. Plants everywhere, from delicate seedlings to furry mosses to massive green beasts that strained at the ceiling. Exotic-looking orchids blotted out the kitchen counter, vines ran along the picture rail straining to reach the windows, spiny cacti and succulents crowded into the bookshelves. Green grow lamps mounted at strategic intervals made the room throb with color. As a thick vegetative odor rolled over me, at once strange and familiar, it struck me that “Clair de Lune” was playing in the background.
“They like it when I leave music on for them,” Viktor said. He fiddled with a digital display mounted next to the coat closet. A humidity meter, I realized. “I know my place is a bit unusual, but I hope you don’t mind it.”
Under the lamps, his pallid complexion turned a faint aquamarine color, giving him the appearance of a benevolent alien. “No, it’s great,” I said.
Once I managed to convince him that I wasn’t put off by his living situation, he loosened up considerably. He showed me green wisps he was coaxing out of the dirt by giving them eyedroppers of rainwater and a dose of red light every four hours. Rare tropical flowers he’d saved from a blistering disease. “And my crown jewel.” He steered me toward a tremendous glass case that dwarfed the kitchen table and which was filled with the oddest plant life I’d ever encountered. Tube-shaped specimens with bristly lace pinwheels. Shuddering pink lumps that made me think of sea anemones. In the far corner, a trio of jellied globes quietly leaked a dark red liquid. Nearby, an octopus-like creature gleamed with a sticky-looking goo. Viktor gestured at a pot of tiny green monsters, their fanged mouths stretched open.
“Dionaea muscipula. Also known as Venus Fly Trap.” He snuck a look at me. “Named after the Goddess of Love.”
He went on to explain that the plants in the glass enclosure were carnivorous. “Of course, some people think that means you can feed them things like ground beef or chopped up hot dogs, which would surely kill them. But at the same time, they’re a lot more like humans than you might suspect. For example, did you know Venus Fly Trap has a memory?”
The thought was so absurd I started laughing. “What?”
Without a word, he went to the refrigerator and came back gripping a jar with a hunk of raw hamburger at the bottom. He held it up with the sly theatricality of a magician. “Observe.”
As he unscrewed the lid, I worried that he was going to feed the poor little plant meat right in front of me. He capped the jar with his hand as though he was trying to prevent something from escaping. The hamburger, I saw then, was crawling with green-bottle flies. He lifted a trapdoor in the top of the terrarium and placed the jar next to the tiny fanged creatures. “Watch the hairs on Venus’s lips. If a fly brushes just one of them, she won’t bother to snap her jaws shut. Doing so costs the plant a lot of time and energy. Instead, she waits. Only if the fly touches a second hair within twenty seconds or so will her trigger mechanism be activated.”
I thought this over. “So for her to eat, she has to recall that the first hair was touched.”
“You learn fast,” he said.
We turned back to the terrarium and within seconds a fly landed on one of the traps. It hesitated, as if sensing danger. Part of me wanted to make a sudden move so that it would wing away to safety. Part of me wanted to see what would happen next. The fly took a second cautious step––and the trap closed around it. Even through the hairy green cage, you could see the small creature struggling in panic. Unable to help myself, I turned my face away.
Viktor removed the jar from the terrarium and screwed the lid back on. “Nature can be a bit morbid, can’t she? But at the same time she reminds us how mysterious life is. How fleeting.” I looked at the remaining flies, buzzing in frantic circles. Was I the insect or the plant? There seemed to be a clue in what I’d just witnessed, if only I could remember. Swallowing hard, I looked up in time to see Viktor’s pale green skin flush into kelly.
He took a step forward. “As the poets tell us, seize the day,” he said.
Karen Tucker’s short fiction has appeared in Epoch, Carve Magazine, American Literary Review, upstreet, and Salamander. The recipient of an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant for Emerging Writers, she’s currently pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at Florida State.
I had to meet with the Beaver Elementary guidance counselor for twenty minutes every week, school policy in the death of a parent. Her name was Ms. Bernstein and she collected snow globes. My favorite was a giant tarantula that lay half-hidden in snow until you shook it, or held it upside down; then you could see its fangs.
“Most kids like the Snoopy one,” Ms. Bernstein said.
“I like arachnids.” I shrugged. “I like all animals, really.” This was our first meeting.
“How are you feeling?” Ms. Bernstein asked. Her office smelled like tomato soup.
“Like a bee sting.” I turned the snow globe upside down.
“Death is painful.” She nodded.
“The tarantula’s bite,” I said, “is virtually harmless to humans.”
Ms. Bernstein explained that the grieving process takes eighteen months, and she drew a timeline on a piece of paper for me to take home. She drew twenty empty boxes instead of eighteen, since she said she wasn’t sure when I had started the grieving process, whether it was after my mom had gone missing or after she’d been found.
“Do you think it’s suspicious,” I asked during that first meeting, “that Mom died in a drowning accident when she was an excellent swimmer?”
“Denial,” she said. “What you’re experiencing is a stage of grief. You need to work toward accepting your mother’s death.”
Ms. Bernstein said there were normal and abnormal ways of dealing with the death of a loved one. I didn’t know if I was being normal or not. Ms. Bernstein admitted it was a little strange that I was still asking questions about my mother’s cause of death.
I worried I wasn’t normal because I felt sad, but not as sad as I wanted to feel, as sad as I thought someone with a dead mother should feel. I got out of bed every morning, and brushed my teeth, and walked the dog. I ate Fruity Pebbles for breakfast and they tasted fine. I raised my hand first in class whenever Ms. Powell asked a question. So much was the same as before. “Shouldn’t I feel worse?” I asked.
Ms. Bernstein explained that I was experiencing the numbness after loss, and she said it was another expected response, especially for someone so young, someone still learning how to suffer. I asked if that meant that grief would be easier for Lizzie because she was older, and Ms. Bernstein said it was possible but unlikely, based on what she knew about my sister. Ms. Bernstein had been Lizzie’s guidance counselor once too, before Lizzie graduated from Beaver Elementary and gone on to Three Rivers Junior High. Ms. Bernstein had tried to get Lizzie placed into an institution for troubled youth, but Mom threatened a lawsuit against the school and Ms. Bernstein quickly changed her mind.
I hung up the grieving chart in my bedroom, tacked it on my bulletin board between an old report card and the glossy photographs of Sumatran tigers that I’d cut out from National Geographic. I would cross off every month as it passed.
Lately I have been thinking about what it means to be an artist, and what kinds of responsibilities an artist has to this world in which we live. I have been unable to write for months now, which means I have had a lot of time for thinking. I haven’t eaten. I haven’t slept. I cannot, not with everything I love being destroyed while I lay like a plank in my own bed. Sometimes it seems I may never eat or sleep again.
During all this time I have not been writing or sleeping, I have been teaching Creative Nonfiction at a semi-elite private university in Texas, where my students are very bright and very young; and mostly white and mostly affluent, and have enrolled in my Introduction to Creative Nonfiction class because — well, I don’t know why actually. They love writing, they say, but it might be more accurate to say they love the idea that they love writing. In reality, writing is hard work, and they complain that I make them do so much of it.
Last semester I taught one class only — “Introduction to Creative Nonfiction”—which met on Tuesday afternoons. We spent September and October talking about facts, about narrative, about evidence and ethics, but then November arrived and because voting is more important than creative nonfiction I insisted that if they missed my class in order to go vote they would be excused. On Election Day, only a few were missing from the circle we had made with our desks. I checked in with those who were present: did you vote yet? did you? Most said yes, they definitely voted—earlier in the day, or during early voting, or they mailed absentee ballots back to the states where they are registered. A handful did not vote at all. One, registered in Florida, said she just wasn’t very excited about either of the candidates. (I regret the ways my face registered the horror with which I reacted to this.) Another, registered in San Antonio, said her vote wouldn’t make any difference anyway. I looked at my watch: 4:15. The polls closed at 7:00. You can make it, I said. Go there. Drive now. My students didn’t understand why I was so worried. They believed in the data, in the arc of history. One said the outcome is certain.
I raced home after class to prepare for guests. I warmed appetizers, opened bottles of wine. Our neighbors arrived with food in their hands. The children raced from room to room — from inside to outside through wide open doors — in a shrieking, tumbling pack. The adults laughed and clinked our glasses together and turned on the television. Nervous laughter rose as one said, It’s early. There’s still New York, said another. We stuffed ourselves with cheese. It was nearly midnight when the children were gathered and returned to their homes. My daughter asked, as I tucked her into bed, whether a woman was President and I said, No, darling. Not yet.
A week later I found myself back in the same classroom with my students, but living in a different world. Or it was the same world, but revealed to us, and we were all different for having seen it as it is. They looked a little gray and unwashed, wrung out or strung out; their eyes were swollen or sunken or bloodshot. They wouldn’t look me in the eye, didn’t meet my gaze. They stared at the floor, slouched low in their seats.
Neat piles of pages were stacked on every desk in our circle — three brave writers had shared their essays about trauma and desire and loss, written before any of us knew what we know now — but my students did not want to workshop; workshopping, one said, is the last thing in the world I want to be doing right now. As if it was completely clear to everyone that art cannot rise to occasions like these.
What do you want to be doing right now? I asked. One shrugged her shoulders. Go back in time, one said. Die, said another. I had not prepared a speech — I had felt too distraught, too much a hunted animal to do anything but rage and grieve — so instead I listened and pretended to be wise and calm. It is hard to find the words, they insisted. One gestured broadly over her head with her hands. There is nothing we can do, she said.
“What are the words you do not yet have?” Audre Lorde asked attendees of the Modern Language Association Convention in 1977. “What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?”
The One-Eyed Man, out today from Viking, centers on a middle-aged man named K. who, after his wife passes away, loses his ability to process metaphor, becoming so wedded to the notion of literal fact and is so dedicated to unmasking lies and delusions that he provokes strangers and friends alike. When he intervenes in an armed robbery, K finds himself both an inadvertent hero and the star of a new reality television program. Together with Claire, a former grocery store clerk with a sharp tongue and a yen for celebrity, he travels the country, ruffling feathers and gaining fame at the intersection of American politics and entertainment. As K. and Claire are confronted by gun-toting activists and hyper-liberal media personalities alike, Currie gives glimpses into the life that K. shared with his wife, Sarah, providing an emotional look into what made K. unravel and what, if anything, will bring him back.
Sarah died as she had lived, which is to say: furiously.
I’m referring here to the very last day of her life, during which she flailed through something called the agonal phase.
Depending on one’s perspective, “agonal” is either an apt and evocative description of the phenomenon, or an inaccurate, perhaps even hyperbolic description of the phenomenon.
Apt because during this time the dying person often thrashes about, throws her head from side to side, makes strange animal noises, and generally behaves as if she were in tremendous discomfort.
Inaccurate and perhaps hyperbolic because neuroscientists agree that the agonal phase is a cognitive state resembling deep surgical sedation, and so despite all the gasping and moaning the person experiences no discomfort—let alone agony—whatsoever.
On average it lasts for two minutes, give or take.
Sarah’s, by contrast, went on all day and into the night.
This was by no means the only way in which she was exceptional.
“I know it seems awful,” the hospice nurse said while I sat at Sarah’s bedside and held her hand. “But I’ve done this many, many times, and she can’t feel anything. She’s miles away.”
Every half minute or so, Sarah would heave for breath and squeeze my hand with a strength I’d never known her to possess. Each time it felt like the small bones in my hand might crack. I winced and held on despite the fact that Sarah could not feel or know anything, and thus could not care less whether I was holding her hand.
“I’m here,” I told her over and over. “Okay, okay. Easy. I’m here, Sarah. I’m here.”
As the first hour passed, the nurse expressed surprise that Sarah was still alive, and began uttering platitudes that had no basis in either medicine or human physiology.
“She’s not ready to leave you yet,” the nurse said. Also: “It’s amazing sometimes how long people hold on, out of love.”
When it was over, I learned that patients whose cancer migrates to the lungs, as Sarah’s had, could sometimes struggle for hours before finally expiring. This seemed, for reasons both scientific and personal, a much more likely explanation for her protracted agonal period than any reluctance on her part to leave me. Continue reading
I imagined that I could hear the clicking of the carousel, but really I couldn’t. I more or less felt it somewhere in my body though, like my heartbeat.
Sitting in a dark room at the MoMA, I watched Nan Goldin’s slide show, “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.” On either side of me my Art and Design students slouched and looked at their phones, their faces awash in a neon glow of secrets. We had come to the exhibit to discuss how to analyze art.
During “The Ballad,” topless women slid in and out of my view. Cookie and Suzanne, two of the most prominent characters, took baths, put on lipstick, cried in dive bars. There were more women—women who orgasmed, who fought, who cowered next to coffins, women in coffins. All I could think was, great profile pic.
Great profile pic. Click. Double Tap. Like.
On the train ride home, I scrolled through my Instagram feed. I looked at my own account, tried to analyze my life like an exhibit.
But then I looked at his account. The one I don’t follow; the one I look at the most. Truth is I look at his less often then I look at the accounts he likes: the girls he stalks like a white hunter on safari. Stars on their nipples, tufts of pubic hair inching out of transparent panties. The girls are the real art objects in which I try to find meaning.
I had just had my class read Laura Mulvey’s famous essay on the male gaze, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” I beg Mulvey’s forgiveness every time my finger traces down my phone.
There is an awkward Russian teenager he likes on Instagram. She is only beginning to learn to be coy. She takes pictures lying in bed, the camera positioned an arm’s length away. I think I know what he imagines he shoots onto her face.
I have become obsessed with his obsession.
Nan said that her camera was an extension of her body. I see my female students and their phones look like appendages, extra sets of hands. They wear those flat white Instagram hearts on their sleeves. What’s the difference, Nan, between your grainy electric photographs, and a selfie with its nostalgia filter, and this essay—a kind of augmentation of my thoughts? Do you like me? Do you think like me?
Photograph 1: Nan and Bryan in Bed.
Nan lies in bed, watching Bryan smoke. His bare back is the largest object in the photograph. His shoulders stoop forward, crooked like a man leaning into the wind. He is shaped like a question mark, and even in the photo there is lust coming off his body, like trails of smoke from blown out birthday candles. Or maybe, I’m projecting. I always tell my students: don’t make assumptions until you can read the picture—go back to the image, go back to the text.
Nan takes up less room in the photo, only the tiniest corner. All in black, she gazes at Bryan. I follow her gaze too. I am Nan. I want Bryan just as much as Nan. I think about the ways I could make him stay.
Nan and Bryan in Bed is flooded in buttery yellow light. We don’t know if it’s daylight, or coming from an artificial source. Bryan glows. Nan seems like a mistake, an accidental thumb print.
We know in our hearts, don’t we Nan? That men are always sifting through our hands, always sitting on the edge of the bed ready to get up and leave as soon as we reach for them. This is what makes us so desperate and reliant. Nan put this dependency on display. She is our mirror. In her 1996 artist statement for “The Ballad,” she writes: “Intense sexual bonds become consuming and self-perpetuating. You become dependent on the gratification. Sex becomes a microcosm of the relationship, the battleground, and exorcism.”
Sometimes I felt that when he and I were having sex it was the only time we were truly seeing one another. Once he bent me over and simply stared into my vagina.
But lest we get too caught up in the seduction, cheeky Nan has a reminder. In the top right hand corner is the smallest detail: Bryan’s 8×10 headshot. Nan never wants us to forget—Bryan’s kind of an asshole, or to use Mulvey’s term, he’s a narcissist. Bryan always has a representation of himself that he’s more in love with.
The difference between Nan and Bryan, and Nan and Instagram is that Nan wants us to look, doesn’t pretend otherwise, but she’s the one she’s really playing to. There are no likes in Nan and Bryan in Bed. Nan is her own audience. She says, “I’m not crashing this party; this is my party.”
This month’s Dear Reader writer-in-residence at Ace Hotel New York is Claire Fuller, author of the Desmond Elliott Prize-winning Our Endless Numbered Days and the critically acclaimed Swimming Lessons. While in New York for her first-ever U.S. tour, Claire called Ace home—and, as per Dear Reader tradition, penned a letter to an imagined audience. This weekend, that letter was placed in rooms to be found and read by unsuspecting hotel guests. We caught up with Claire to talk Shirley Jackson, writing to music, and not making plans.
If you could correspond with any fictional character or literary figure via letters, who would it be? And why?
I think it would have to be Shirley Jackson. Firstly, I’m a huge admirer of her writing (We Have Always Lived in the Castle is one of my favorite books), and secondly she was a big letter writer, so I know I could rely on her to always send me one back. I recently read the biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin. While researching the book, Franklin discovered nearly sixty pages of letters stashed in a Pennsylvanian barn, between Jackson and a Jeanne Beatty, a housewife who wrote Jackson a fan letter. I like to think that if I wrote her fan letter she would reply and we could correspond about writing, and children, and how to ignore the housework.
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?
I don’t map out my writing at all, so it’s always going in directions I never expect. I have a location and some characters and I put them in it and see what they will do. In the early stages I try and direct them, but after a while I let them take over. It’s both scary and exciting, but then at about the three quarter mark of the first draft I wonder why I didn’t make a plan.
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 don’t think about an audience “out there” at all when I write. I do write to be read by other people, but I also only write as if the only audience will be me. In other words, I try to write the kind of book (or letter) I like to read. I don’t think I’ve been surprised by particular readers, but I am often surprised when I hear from readers at all (and it’s always nice to hear from readers). For a lot of the time writing is very solitary, and then a book gets published and I suddenly start to hear from strangers who have been touched in some way by what I’ve written, by something that has come out of my head, gone onto some paper, and appeared in their head. It feels miraculous.
What’s a book that you wish more people knew about?
There’s a book that’s mentioned in my second novel, Swimming Lessons—Who was Changed and Who was Dead by Barbara Comyns, which is a great and odd little book. I’d love for more people to know about it and her.
Do you have any rituals, ceremonies or requirements that accompany your writing process?
Only two things really: firstly to be warm. I usually have a couple of jumpers on, a blanket over my shoulders and a hot water bottle on my lap. It’s chilly sitting all day. And secondly, fairly early on in the process I like to work out what music I’ll be writing a particular book to, and I put it on every time I write. My first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, was written to an Iron and Wine sound track, and Swimming Lessons was written to Townes Van Zandt.
Claire Fuller was born in Oxfordshire, England, in 1967. She gained a degree in sculpture from Winchester School of Art, but went on to have a long career in marketing and didn’t start writing until she was forty. Her first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, won the 2015 Desmond Elliott Prize. She has an MA in Creative and Critical Writing from the University of Winchester and lives in Hampshire, England with her husband and two children.
Our Dear Reader interview series is published in conjunction with the Ace Hotel blog.
There’s this new app called uFeelMe, but instead of a photo or video or simple line of text, it disseminates actual feelings, feelings users have uploaded to a catalogue of Feels, available for consumption by friends, family, vague outer reaches of massing social networks.
“uFeelMe cuts to the heart of what sharing online is,” says the app’s creator, some kid. “A photo is feeling, a video is feeling, a Tweet is feeling, a…” and on he goes.
The tech that makes this app work is mysterious, shrouded, and no effort to determine its innards has yielded results. Theories: invisible eye scanner, algorithm that sorts recent browsing and texts, sensors on the back of smartphones pressing against desperate palms. No user, however, has thus far questioned the validity of the feelings catalogued within.
What is known is that two feelings have emerged as most popular, felt repeatedly and repeatedly, during times of triumph and listlessness and boredom and shattering regret.
The first is Kanye West, of course. I’ve not indulged myself, no, I’m a long-time slow adapter (Tweet at me if patient and good with Snapchat, btw). I have, however, talked to dozens who indulge on the regular, who savor the Kanye West Feel as if it were a home. The Kanye West Feel, they tell me, is indomitable, unstoppable, powerful, brash, cocky. But what do those words even mean? My friend Lisa, from Milwaukee, elaborates:
“To feel Kanye West is to go to sixth grade in a brand new pair of fashion-forward jeans, about which you have your doubts. On that same day of school you have an idea for a joke you think is good, so good, the funniest thing anyone has said yet, a joke to win your crush, to endear the platonics, to impress your teacher, whom you could take or leave but still. After you say the joke, though, half the class laughs, as hard as you expected, and half the class is furious, insulting, racist. So, you go off quiet on your own to create. You feel me?”
The second Feel is Gerard Plimpton of Minnesota. He works in IT. Gerard’s Feel was recorded while watching a particularly good episode of Bob’s Burgers, a funny cartoon for adults that you’ve seen. Gerard was curled on his couch watching at night after the first radiant day of true spring (May 3) in Minnesota; he’d been outside, hiking flatlands. His fiancée was leaned against him. She’d been hiking too. A TV tray beside their couch held two empty plastic containers of yogurt, key lime with a white chocolate chip and graham cracker crumble in a separate pouch. There were also dirty spoons.
The app creator reports that en route to selecting either top Feel, every user, all of us, spends 45 seconds minimum, an Internet eternity, with thumb poised above screen, above couch or Kanye West.
Zack Quaintance lives in Northern California. His fiction has been published by The Austin Review and The Stockholm Review of Literature.
No one has ever congratulated me for reading a book before, I suppose except for my first—that is not until last summer in Istanbul, when a few of my Turkish friends saw me toting around the new translation of Sabahattin Ali’s Madonna in a Fur Coat.
I felt as if I was being congratulated for finally showing up to something, and yet I felt like I’d arrived late. There had been a party of sorts, and it had ended badly. I’m referring to the Gezi Park Protests of 2013. The Istanbul municipality had attempted to raze one of the last of the city center’s green spaces, without, as should have been the case, any public consultation. The plan, consecrated from on-high by then-prime minster Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was to construct a kitschy mock barracks mall. After a brutal police crackdown on the initial sit-in, Gezi quickly evolved into a demonstration comparable—in size, scope and the existential nature of its threat to authorities—to the May 1968 events in France.
For two weeks, the park was in a state of the kind of anarchy that actually warms the heart. A makeshift infirmary and kitchen appeared first, followed by a veterinarian ward, a library, a children’s workshop, a stage for concerts, mobile drama workshops and a number of other institutions. Homosexuals kissed freely. Political party flags were banned. Immigrants stood amid applause, holding placards that said, “Today I got my citizenship.” I was lucky to have been there, alongside my wife and our friends, and I have to say, I’ve never been so optimistic about my fellow man since. (Now) President Erdoğan extended little to no understanding—extended nothing, really, but his vitriol—and when the police re-entered Gezi Park and Taksim Square, they were merciless, setting fire to tents, wielding billy clubs and spraying water cannons. In twenty days, they used 130 thousand canisters of tear gas. Nevertheless, Gezi had been a celebration of peace, beauty, egalitarianism and respect, and it seemed to me at the time, based on how many people I’d seen reading Kurk Mantolu Madonna, as it’s called in Turkish, that for the broad swath of Turkish fifteen to forty year-olds the book was the movement’s required text.
Two things about this phenomenon fascinate me. One is that Madonna in a Fur Coat was first published in 1943; since 1998 it has gone through 79 Turkish editions, selling over 750,000 copies since the Gezi Park protests alone. According to the English language newspaper “Daily Sabah,” a photo composition of the book and a cup of coffee or tea was one of the most popular images on Instagram in 2015, with over 60,000 photos posted to the #kurkmantolumadonna hashtag. And when a Turkish morning show host recently pooh-poohed both the book and its film adaptation because she thought it was about Madonna the pop star—she then “doubled down,” as we say here, insisting that she’d read the book—she was, as she claimed, “lynched” on social media.
The other fascinating thing is that Madonna in a Fur Coat isn’t a political work. Rather, it’s a simple yet gorgeously written love story about a shy, cynical young man named Raif, who is sent by his father to Berlin to learn the scented soap-making trade. Of course, Raif, a former art student, does nothing of the sort. Instead he visits every art gallery he can, falls in love with the fur-clad self-portrait of a local painter named Maria Puder, and, upon meeting her, falls in love with Maria herself. The rest of the book narrates the gradual flowering, and withering, of their relationship. Maria moves to Prague. Raif returns to Ankara. There’s a twist towards the end, but a necessary one—and that’s it. By the way, I’m not spoiling anything. The book, in the spirit of Stefan Zweig’s frame stories, begins with Raif as an unhappy and infirm old man, and it’s through his personal diary that we get the meat of the novel, which takes place in Berlin.
If Ali had wanted to write a political work—and he was a deeply political man—he had gathered all of the elements to do so. He wrote Madonna in a Fur Coat over the winter of 1940-41 in a tent while doing a second tour of obligatory military service, when the Second World War was surely on his mind. As for the story, it is set in the newly founded Turkish Republic shortly after the First World War, shifts to the political tinder box that was Berlin in the twenties, and features as its two main characters a Turk and a Jew. But to politics Ali grudges only a curt nod. No more than half a page, it comes up as an atmospheric stroke in which Raif sums up the messianic jingoism of the newly discharged German officers that frequent his pension, and the vapid political dinnertime oratory of the boarders. With the idealistic Maria Puder affixed to his mind, Raif never fails to slip out of the room unnoticed. You can’t help but feel as if Sabahattin Ali himself were slipping out too. “I could talk politics,” he seems to say, “but that, being below us, is not what I’m interested in. I’m interested in an ideal version of love.”
A Cup of Cold Water
In the kitchen, under the open light bulb
burning out, my father
is looking at the two pills
in the palm of his hand:
one a red oval, like candy,
the other a firm blue square.
He says do you know
how they make me feel?
I have filled a cup to the brim
and I’m about to drink.
I say here and shove it over
and he swallows his pills
and the water splashes, just a little,
around his hands as he sets the cup back down.
Christina Lee’s poetry and prose has been featured in The Toast, Hoot, Relief, Ruminate, and Whale Road Review. She lives with her husband in Sierra Madre, CA, where she teaches English at a public junior high.
Here are the things I knew about my birth father:
•His name was Jon.
•He was a career drug addict and alcoholic.
•He was Wampanoag.
•He played guitar.
•He had other children.
•He raised none of us.
I was a curious child but I was never curious about Jon. Jon was just Jon. He was a fact the size of a postage stamp, which my mother once wryly suggested he had never in his life purchased. Jon was not a mystery. Jon was a small suitcase that my parents unpacked for me as a child. See? they said. Here is what he left you. The neat circular vowels of biological and Wampanoag, the empty bottle with the skull and crossbones on its label, and the endless double helical strands of 50 percent of my DNA, glimmering coils as perfect as the skin of an apple peeled by my mother’s knife. Not much to see here, they shrugged. But it’s yours. I ran my fingers along the tops of those letters, felt the spine of the little b, the l’s, and the w. I looked through the glass bottle, my parents’ faces rippled on the other side. I repacked the suitcase and put it on the closet shelf. Over the years my mother warned me about the drinking. It’s hereditary, she told me. But little else was assigned to that half of my blue- print. You probably don’t have much in common with them, she said of my unknown half siblings.
Then, when I was eight, I started eating my pancakes with butter and salt instead of maple syrup. The rst time I reached for the saltshaker, my mother froze.
Jon used to eat his pancakes with butter and salt, she said, not in her usual voice, but slower, her mouth turning the words like prickly lozenges.
I put that saltshaker in the suitcase, too, but didn’t forget it like the other things.
Ranging between lively readings in the homes of Moscow’s literary elite to the Siberian Gulag, Julie Lekstrom Himes’ Mikhail and Margarita (Europa editions) recounts a passionate love triangle while painting a portrait of a country whose towering literary tradition is at odds with a dictatorship that does not tolerate dissent.
The following excerpt portrays a meeting between Mikhail Bulgakov and Joseph Stalin following the imprisonment and exile of Bulgakov’s mentor, the poet Osip Mandelstam.
In the spring of 1934 the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam was arrested for writing a poem about Stalin. The evening had been sultry and he would later remember the smell of ozone from earlier thunderstorms and the mustiness of mold blooms. He would be distressed that he was unable to recall the dress his wife had been wearing. The poem had protested the silencing of literary voices. It hadn’t been a flattering portrayal and Mandelstam was imprisoned in Lubyanka, tortured, tried and exiled to Cherdyn in the Northern Urals. Shortly after arriving in Cherdyn, he attempted suicide by jumping from a window. During interrogations, he had provided many names. Amongst those he’d given, a few had actually read the poem. One of them was his friend, the playwright Mikhail Bulgakov.
That same spring, Bulgakov posted a letter to Soviet government, petitioning for permission to travel abroad. Bulgakov described himself as a satirist in a country that no longer tolerated satire. He expressed confidence that should he even attempt to write a communist play he would fail, and that he’d been driven to burn all of his existing manuscripts including a novel about the devil. His final question carried a sense of desperation—Am I unthinkable in the USSR?
Stalin received that letter.
One agent drove. The other sat in the back beside Bulgakov; this one stared out the side window as if bored. Flattened cigarette butts littered the floor around his feet; the agent shifted occasionally in the cramped space. The air had a dusty odor. Neither gave any indication of their destination. The car seemed to be of its own mind as they negotiated the grid of streets. With each turn Bulgakov hoped to detect some reaction from the agents. By all appearances, for all their concern, they could have been transporting livestock or corn.
He looked out the side window. A horizontal crack extended through it, transecting trees and buildings and pedestrians. They passed a woman with a perambulator; a lone man in a suit sitting on a bench, his arms crossed over his chest. They disappeared beyond the edge of his window with their smallish worries. He did not figure among them. On the seat in front of him there was a smear of something—possibly blood. They did not care.
The car slowed. They drove through the gates of the Kremlin. His escorts straightened, then; they faced ahead, alert, as if aware of the possibilities.
They drove past the Cathedral of the Annunciation and the Cathedral of the Assumption to a small, more modern building. They parked and entered. His papers were reviewed and he was searched, thoroughly though not impolitely, then conducted on foot to an annex of the Armory. From within, the low long building appeared to be a motor pool, with twenty or more sedans parked at a slant along the interior perimeter, a variety of models, all modern and expensive. In the center of the garage stood a particularly beautiful vehicle, a convertible; it crouched, golden brown, on low haunches. Bulgakov did not know its maker. Its hood was propped open and a mechanic was bent over it. His escorts stopped inside the door; they gave no further instruction. One remained expressionless. The other, the driver, regarded Bulgakov with what seemed respectful curiosity. Across the room, the would-be mechanic straightened and called to him, and the driver looked ahead.
“Bulgakov—lend a hand, man. What? Afraid of a bit of grease?”
It was Josef Vissarionovich Stalin, General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Chairman of the Council of Ministers, and the People’s Commissar for the Defense of the Soviet Union; he was also known as the “Coryphaeus of Science,” the “Father of Nations,” the “Brilliant Genius of Humanity,” the “Great Architect of Communism,” and the “Gardener of Human Happiness.”
The Great Man laughed and waved him closer.
Early that June, some new neighbors moved in just up the road and built a house around their trailer. We spied on the old couple until their house was done. We watched them start to collect things like tires and rusty chairs in their yard. When the swampy area behind our own house dried out, we took our adventures out back and combed the still-soft ground for arrowheads and any other evidence that the Cherokee had lived on our land. Once, Jamie found a sharp rock that we all agreed was not flat enough to qualify as a real weapon. Michael collected antique rusted bottle caps that had really been tossed aside by folks at one of our parents’ own parties. I kept a tally of the crawdad burrows, which looked like mud chimneys or tiny volcanoes. The muskrat dens were worse because they made the ground collapse, but they were harder to see.
Sometimes Mom asked us to pick watercress out of the stream, or to cut mint for tea. We ate blackberries and boysenberries right off the bushes. When we hiked up the mountain, we tested electric fences by touching a strand of grass to the wire and digging our thumbs into the ground until we could feel the heartbeat of the current. We ran like hell through the field where the bull lazily chewed hay, because Jamie told me my red shirt would make him charge. We picked up baby turtles on the walk home and dropped them into the pond, pleased with ourselves for saving them, until later that summer they grew into giant snapping turtles and dad had to hire a guy to come fish them out with traps. Occasionally, Dennis would limp up the holler and knock on the door to see if my parents had any work. They never did, but Dad gave Dennis a lift to the corner store anyway in the rotten old truck that started without keys, and sometimes Dad bought him a hotdog.
Then one afternoon, things got really exciting. The old lady next door shot her husband. Apparently, she stayed with him in their bedroom for four hours until she decided to make her next move, which was to set the place ablaze. She stood in the doorway while the place burned around her. We watched her standoff with the police from the hill next to our house, heard the officers tell her to drop her weapon. She shot her rifle and the police shot back and then it was all over. On the way back to the house, Michael’s foot sunk into a hole and he tripped and we spent the next few weeks arguing about whether it was muskrats or crawdads that got him in the end.
Erin Harte is originally from the Appalachian Mountains of Southwestern Virginia. She holds an MFA in fiction from Brooklyn College and received a Fulbright scholarship to teach English in Morocco. Now, she lives and teaches writing in the greater Boston area.
& you should exit whatever dark place you’re in:
leave your date wanting more, then pour out
on the sidewalk. In full sun, who knows how
your cheekbones may photograph. How foreign
your heart may appear. You have a nice body
on your hands. You have your looks good
enough to eat. You can run marathons
with a gun going off in your sleep,
but when you reach your time of death,
be ready for seconds: the doctor will lift you
from a drawer & ask which self to unfreeze.
You can play the field or gravel road
but nothing between.
Ben Purkert’s debut poetry collection, FOR THE LOVE OF ENDINGS, is coming out March 2018 from Four Way Books. His poems and essays appear or are forthcoming in The New Yorker, Kenyon Review, The Rumpus, Guernica, Agni and elsewhere. He’s also at work on a novel.
It’s our second month curating Dear Reader for Ace Hotel New York, and we think we could get used to this! If you’re just now joining us, Dear Reader is a one-night writer’s residency in Manhattan. Each month, Tin House invites a writer to spend the night at Ace, crafting a letter to an imagined audience. The letters can be stories, pleas, or calls to action; reflections or rants—but all of them end up hand-stamped and lettered, laid bedside in each room on a surprise date the next month.
This month’s letter writer is the wise and fearless Jenny Zhang, author of Dear Jenny, We Are All Find (Octopus Books), The Selected Jenny Zhang (Emily Books), and the forthcoming Sour Heart (Lenny). Her letter is placed in rooms today, and she caught up with us to talk destiny, her advice for the little mermaid, and writing as an act of translation.
If you could correspond with any fictional character or literary figure via letters, who would it be? And why?
Too many to choose from but at the moment, I wouldn’t mind writing to the little mermaid from the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale. I’d tell her to ditch the prince and reunite with her sisters. He’s not worth it. Her family is.
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?
I like maps but I fear destinies. I always think I know the fate of my ideas but they sometimes end up in a place I couldn’t have imagined. It’s better to be surprised by your imagination than to be limited by it. That said, I usually have a destination or a starting point in mind, though the way to and from those points are often unpredictable.
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?
Best to not think about audience if only because writing in a bubble is an extravagant fantasy few writers can afford. Thinking about audience is an act of translation–how do you make your words and your ideas legible and understandable to someone who has never lived your life, thought your thoughts? I’m always glad when someone who lives outside my experience connects to my work. That is how I grew up reading—connecting to experiences outside of my mine—so I hope it can be more ubiquitous than the current English canon suggests.
What’s a book that you wish more people knew about?
Harmony Holiday’s Negro League Baseball.
Do you have any rituals, ceremonies or requirements that accompany your writing process?
Just… being alone. Totally alone without fear of interruption.
The spring 2017 Tin House Craft Intensives are here! Come study with Elissa Schappell, Alice Sola Kim, Samantha Hunt, or Pamela Erens, in classes that range from the Stevie-Nicks-approved spectral to the fantastically real. Applications open now through March 20th–apply early for your best shot! Final deadline is March 20th.
April 2nd, 2017: Setting the Clock: Manipulating Past, Present, and Pace in Fiction, with PAMELA ERENS
April 23rd, 2017: Where Are You Going, How Do You Get There?, with ELISSA SCHAPPELL
May 7th, 2017: Dread: A Primer, with ALICE SOLA KIM
May 21st, 2017: Surrounding the Ghost, with SAMANTHA HUNT