Pulitzer Prizes Open to Noncitizens

Momo Chang

When nominations open later this year for the 2025 Pulitzer Prizes, a whole new group of writers have reason to be hopeful about their chances for the prestigious award. This past September, the Pulitzer’s board of directors opened eligibility in the books, drama, and music categories to permanent residents of the United States and others “who have made the United States their longtime primary home.”

The news represents a major victory for activists—particularly undocumented writers—who for years have been lobbying literary prize organizations to allow noncitizens to qualify for awards.

Novelist Ingrid Rojas Contreras—who helped catalyze the decision with an open letter in August calling for the Pulitzer Prizes to consider noncitizen writers—cried when she heard the news. “It sends a message to migrant writers who are too early and too often discouraged from the path of writing,” she says.

Novelist Vanessa Chan, who is from Malaysia and is not a U.S. citizen, agrees. She shared Contreras’s letter with other writers to gather signatures. “It was the right mix of activism and very high-profile support,” says Chan of what finally moved the needle on this issue. Chan is the author of the novel The Storm We Made, published by Marysue Rucci Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, in January.

The news created particular excitement for Javier Zamora, who published an essay last July in De Los, a Latine publication of the Los Angeles Times, petitioning the Pulitzer Prizes to open writing awards further to noncitizens. (Rules about the nationality of contenders for the Pulitzer Prizes have changed since the prizes were first awarded in 1917; by 1974, all categories but history books and those in journalism required winners to be U.S. citizens.) Zamora’s article had inspired Rojas Contreras’s letter, which was published on Literary Hub and shared by other organizations, including Undocupoets, which Zamora helped found in 2015 to create more opportunities for undocumented authors.

A couple of weeks before penning his essay, Zamora had been invited by the Pulitzer organization to be a judge in the memoir category for the 2024 prizes. The invitation struck Zamora as ironic: When Solito, his best-selling memoir about migrating as a child to the United States from his native El Salvador, was published by Hogarth in 2022, he had been ineligible to receive a Pulitzer because he was not a U.S. citizen.

“That really made me mad and frustrated,” Zamora says of the invitation to judge the Pulitzer. He e-mailed the organization to decline, stating that he would not judge a prize that undocumented writers, green card holders, and others who are not U.S. citizens cannot win “because of an unjust policy,” as he put it in De Los.

“Change in the literary world is long overdue,” says Rojas Contreras, explaining the inspiration to write her letter, “Dear Pulitzer Prizes: It’s Time to Recognize Literature by Noncitizens,” which was endorsed by luminaries such as Sandra Cisneros, Safiya Sinclair, and nearly three hundred others.

“We, the undersigned, believe that we have a duty to ask what constitutes the literature of a nation, and in asking this question, we believe it is essential to veer away from the definitions the State provides as to what it thinks constitutes U.S. selfhood,” the letter states.

Marjorie Miller, administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, says the question of whether to further open the prize program to undocumented writers “got legs this year,” in part due to Zamora’s essay and the open letter. Another factor was advocacy by members of the memoir jury for the 2023 prize in memoir or autobiography, the inaugural year for that category of award, which went to Hua Hsu for Stay True (Doubleday, 2022).   

By the time jury members read the nominees, noncitizen writers were already weeded out, including Zamora’s Solito. When jury members realized this, they wrote a memo to the Pulitzer board stating that excluding noncitizen writers was unfair, says Cinelle Barnes, one of the members.

As they awaited a response, Zamora’s essay and Rojas Contreras’s letter appeared, which “put a fire in me,” Barnes says. She reached out to her fellow memoir jurors—Grace M. Cho, Danzy Senna, Amy Wilentz, and Ben Yagoda—who all supported a bigger push to change the Pulitzer’s eligibility requirements. Barnes, a memoirist and essayist who is from the Philippines, was previously undocumented.

With the support of the other jurors for the 2023 memoir prize, Cho and Barnes worked on a new letter to the board. When the board received it, Miller says, members took quick action.

“As we were discussing it, the Undocupoets and Lit Hub petitions were circulating, so that was creating more momentum,” she says.

Barnes remembers jumping up and down when sharing the news with her then-eleven-year-old daughter that the Pulitzer Prizes had opened these latest categories. Barnes became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2017, and her daughter witnessed the ceremony.

“She knew that it meant a lot to me,” Barnes says. “If an undocumented kid reading a book by an undocumented person is very powerful, it’s equally powerful to give artists an optimistic long view for what they can do and how they can be merited for their work.”

For Zamora, the announcement is bittersweet. “I’m glad that it took me not having papers to change something,” he says. As of this writing, Zamora is a green card holder.

He is also concerned about other issues confronting migrant communities in the Americas. He noted President Biden’s recent announcement of continuing the work of the previous presidential administration by building a wall between Mexico and the United States.

“This isn’t only about literature,” Zamora says. “Writers and artists have an opportunity and, I think, a duty, to show other nonartists, nonwriters a version of the world that doesn’t currently exist.”

 

Momo Chang is a Bay Area–based journalist and codirector of Oakland Voices, a community journalism training program and media outlet.

Rethinking Poetic Citizenship

by

Momo Chang

6.17.15

With poems published in several well-respected journals and two prestigious fellowships under his belt, it seems that twenty-five-year-old Javier Zamora is on the path to becoming a successful poet. But until recently, Zamora faced serious obstacles: At age nine, he traveled from El Salvador, across the Sonoran Desert, to the United States to reunite with his parents, who had left several years earlier to escape political persecution and financial hardship in their home country. Growing up an undocumented immigrant, Zamora struggled to get a driver’s license or hold a regular job, and did not qualify for federal financial aid to attend college. As a poet, he hoped to publish his first book but quickly discovered he was ineligible to compete for a number of first-book prizes, as they were open only to U.S. citizens or legal residents.

This spring, Zamora, along with Christopher Soto and Marcelo Hernandez Castillo—the “Undocupoets,” as they call themselves—addressed these restrictions by convincing eleven presses and literary organizations to expand the eligibility criteria for their first-book prizes.

“[We] had been talking about various forms of institutionalized discrimination in the literary community for a few months,” says Soto. In January the three poets took action, publishing a petition on Apogee Journal’s website asking literary contests to open up submissions to undocumented poets. The petition quickly gained traction, with three hundred fifty poets signing on, including established writers such as Rigoberto González, Brenda Hillman, and Laura Kasischke. The petition specifically called on poetry publishers to open grants and first-book contests to people in the United States with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status or Temporary Protected Status (TPS). DACA (or “DREAMers”) are those who came to America as children and who attend high school or have an equivalent degree. TPS is sometimes conferred on undocumented immigrants from countries such as El Salvador and Haiti, which the U.S. government deems unsafe due to ongoing armed conflict or natural disasters.

Over the next few months, the organizers e-mailed eleven contest sponsors—the Academy of American Poets, the American Poetry Review, BOA Editions, Letras Latinas, the National Poetry Series, Persea Books, the Poetry Society of America, the Poetry Foundation, Sarabande Books, Southern Illinois University’s Crab Orchard Review, and Yale University Press—to let them know about the petition and request that they revise their contest eligibility rules. By the end of April, every one of the sponsors had responded. Several updated their guidelines almost immediately. Others said that changes would be coming soon. “We feel like it’s important to reflect the growing diversity of poets living, working, and writing in the U.S. today,” says Jennifer Benka, executive director of the Academy of American Poets. In early March, the Academy announced that it would make changes to all of its contests, including the Walt Whitman Award, considered one of the most generous first-book prizes in the country. According to the new requirements, eligible poets now include citizens, legally permanent residents, those who have TPS or DACA status, and those who have lived in the United States for at least ten years.
  Some prize administrators have now taken the initiative to learn more about the ever-changing laws and restrictions in the U.S. immigration system. And some simply want to find the best American poetry by including more voices in the search. “What really persuaded us is the fact that we did share the desire to find the best poetry out there and help get it published, which is one of the hardest things to do,” says Stephanie Stio, coordinator of the National Poetry Series. Stio says the organization will update guidelines beginning this fall, when its next contest opens.

Aside from contests, undocumented writers face other kinds of hurdles in the literary world. Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, one of the petition organizers, is the first undocumented writer to graduate from the University of Michigan’s MFA program. As Castillo discovered, applying to graduate school can be a process fraught with complications for undocumented students—from presenting the necessary identification to take the GRE, to applying for funding, to simply relocating to another state. Having overcome these issues, Castillo is particularly committed to mentoring other undocumented writers through the application process, which can be as uncomfortable as it is complex for people who have been taught to keep a low profile. Castillo, who became a permanent resident last year, understands how paralyzed undocumented immigrants can feel by the need to stay invisible. When he was five, he crossed the border from Tijuana into San Diego with his father and pregnant mother, both migrant farmworkers, along with his brother and sister, who dressed as a boy to avoid drawing additional attention. “I knew from day one what kinds of things I shouldn’t do, that my father was in danger every time he was behind the wheel, that in the fields there were a lot of immigration raids,” he says. “It made me grow up very quick.”

Castillo, Soto, and Zamora understand that the initial success of their petition is just a start: The changes affect an unquantifiable number of undocumented poets, and only those who have been in the country for a specific period of time, or who qualify for special immigration categories (just around one million of the estimated eleven million undocumented people in the United States qualify for DACA status). “This is a very small fight,” Zamora says. “It is a narrow and small victory, but a victory nonetheless.” At the very least, the Undocupoets organizers say, the recent changes have started a dialogue about which voices are heard in the literary world. “The petition was important because it created conversation and action around institutionalized discrimination,” Soto says. “It brought the community together. It got publishers to start thinking about the people who are and are not allowed to be part of the literary landscape. Next, we should start organizing against the exploitative reading fees that keep working-class poets from submitting to literary journals. The work is never done, when trying to create a more just world.”   

Momo Chang is a journalist in Oakland, California. She writes about immigration, health care, education, and media. Her website is momochang
.com.

 

A Prize for New Immigrant Writing

by

Anni Liu

4.8.20

Although literary awards have increasingly honored the diversity of America’s foremost writers, few literary prizes are devoted to the celebration of immigrant writing. Fewer still are dedicated to providing a platform for immigrant writers by publishing their work. Chief among these is the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing. Since 2016 the prize, sponsored by the New York City–based independent publisher Restless Books, has awarded $10,000 and publication to a first-generation writer who has not previously published a book in English in a given genre. The prize is awarded in fiction and nonfiction in alternate years; judges have included Téa Obreht, Anjali Singh, and Héctor Tobar. This summer, judges will review entries for the fifth annual contest. Priyanka Champaneri’s novel, The City of Good Death, winner of the 2018 contest, had been set for a summer release, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, its publication was rescheduled for February 2021.

The scarcity of—and need for—this kind of prize is something its founder, Restless Books publisher Ilan Stavans, recognized and wanted to address. “At a time in which politicians and the media reduce immigrants to mere ciphers,” Stavans says, “the objective was clear-cut: to do what literature does best . . . by allowing emerging immigrant writers from anywhere and everywhere to tell their own stories.” 

Four writers have received the award since its inception: fiction writers Deepak Unnikrishnan (2016) and Champaneri and nonfiction writers Grace Talusan (2017) and Rajiv Mohabir (2019). Although their books—which vary from gritty fables to sumptuous family sagas and unsparing personal reflections—are very different, Talusan feels that they are “a kind of family.” 

All the award winners describe being previously turned away at publishers’ doors, time and again. “When I won the prize,” Unnikrishnan says, “[Temporary People] had been rejected by every major publisher in the United States and a few in India, including most of the independent presses I admired.” It took both Unnikrishnan and Champaneri ten years to finish their books and find a publisher. “There are champions from within the publishing industry who support good stories outside the limits of fads—the nebulous ‘hot’ country or culture of a moment—but we need more of them,” Champaneri says. “And we need more people—ideally, also from immigrant and first-generation communities—creating literary criticism of these works.”

In Restless Books, writers have found a press that champions new voices that push boundaries of form and content. “I have been told many times that there is no market for my queer, brown, immigrant writing,” says the prize’s most recent recipient, Rajiv Mohabir. “Winning this prize meant that I get to tell the queerest story in the queerest ways possible.” His forthcoming book, Antiman, will be a literary hybrid of essay, translation, poetry, speculation, folktale, and transcription—a “strange animal,” as he calls it. 

Mohabir also speaks to the ways documentation requirements restrict funding for communities of artists and publication of immigrant writers: “What if ‘papers’ were not needed for publishing and receiving funds from the United States?” he asks. “What if we remove this kind of border wall from our literary spaces?” Because funding for the literary arts in the United States often requires that awardees be citizens or legal permanent residents, many immigrant and migrant writers are kept out of the industry. The Undocupoets campaign of 2015, led by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, Christopher Soto, and Javier Zamora, sought to address this obstacle by petitioning ten prestigious first-book awards in poetry to eliminate their citizenship requirements to be more inclusive. Though Restless Books does not award prizes for poetry, its eligibility rules would have preempted this issue; since its inception the Prize for New Immigrant Writing has not included citizenship requirements—in fact, first-generation writers residing in any country are eligible.

While the publishing industry continues to reckon with who gets to tell what stories, the rarity of honors like the Restless Books prize serves as a reminder that there is much space still to be made for immigrant writers. As Mohabir says, in words that are equal parts warning and rallying cry, “We are not staying quiet. We won’t be shut out. We are already here. We won’t speak English because you want us to. We won’t let you tell our stories.” 

 

Anni Liu is a writer, translator, and editor with writing published or forthcoming in the Georgia Review, Two Lines, Pleiades, and Quarterly West, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Indiana University and works at Graywolf Press.  

Editor’s Note: This article was updated with the new publication date of Priyanka Champaneri’s novel, The City of Good Death.

Winners of the Prize for New Immigrant Writing include (clockwise from upper left) Deepak Unnikrishnan, Priyanka Champaneri, Rajiv Mohabir, and Grace Talusan. (Credit: Unnikrishnan: Philip Cheung; Champaneri: Lauren Brennan; Mohabir: Jordan Miles; Talusan: Alonso Nichols)

First: Rajiv Mohabir’s The Taxidermist’s Cut

by

Rigoberto González

2.10.16

Three years ago, Rajiv Mohabir and I were living only a few neighborhoods apart in Queens, New York. He was a graduate student in the MFA program at Queens College and teaching ESL in Ozone Park. Because of his Indo-Caribbean ancestry, it wasn’t surprising to learn that he had ties to Richmond Hill, another Queens neighborhood, which had been nicknamed Little Guyana, but his residence in the borough was a much more complicated immigrant story. Shortly after the announcement from Four Way Books that his manuscript The Taxidermist’s Cut had been awarded the 2014 Intro Prize in Poetry, I made an appointment to interview him about that journey. But I had to travel all the way to O’ahu to meet with him.

“In a way, it makes sense to talk about my life here,” Mohabir says, pointing with his chin toward the view of the ocean and the row of high-rise hotels along Honolulu’s Waikīkī beach. “This is yet another colonial narrative. And even worse—a settler fantasy. None of this is natural. Waikīkī used to be a wetland. Now it’s a tourist paradise.”

Mohabir’s keen awareness of place and history is informed by his sense of being an outsider no matter what place he inhabits. His parents migrated from Guyana to London, where he was born in 1981. Soon after, his family moved to Toronto, and then to Richmond Hill, a community thriving with culture, but not open spaces. “My father kept escaping city life,” Mohabir explains. “He wanted to reconnect with the land.” Lured by the promise of a rural haven, the Mohabirs relocated to Chuluota, Florida, a white working-class town.

Mohabir spent his formative years in Chuluota, where he began to reckon seriously with his difference, his apartness, by answering repeatedly that most invasive of questions, “Where are you from?” No, he wasn’t from India and neither were his parents. They were from South America. No, he didn’t speak Spanish. Or Hindi. Questions about his identity began to plant the seeds for the pursuits he would eventually undertake in college, but for the moment he felt trapped inside a puzzle of an ancestry. And just when he thought he was gaining ground toward acceptance, troubling comments about his body, about his physical appearance, rattled his confidence: “Once I dared play barefoot like all my friends and one of them said, ‘Your feet are just like leather.’”

But there was yet another difference he had to contend with—his sexuality. “Then it became too much,” he confesses. Despite the bright day and the jovial sounds from the beach, the mood takes a somber turn as he shows me the visible marks on his arms. He had become a cutter. “Scars are another kind of language,” he adds.

Suffering with depression as an adolescent was an ordeal for the entire family. “It’s like the fire went out inside me,” he says. “I believe my parents were trying to protect me, but this was beyond their grasp.” He was prescribed Prozac, but received no counseling, and so he moved through his adolescence inhibited and unresponsive. He took solace in writing “little snapshots” of thoughts and images that he kept to himself—a private diary he would later identify as his first attempts at poetry.  

His other consolation was the annual trip to Toronto to visit Aji, his grandmother, an outsider herself because she refused to assimilate into Canadian society. Aji regaled Mohabir with stories about India and folk songs in Bhojpuri. “She nurtured my drive to find myself in the beauty of Indian culture,” he says.

And then there were those rare visits to Queens that made Mohabir long for the company of his immigrant community, and that made him more fully aware of his desire for intimacy with men. “I knew I wanted to explore my heritage and I knew I’d be back to live in the freedom of Queens someday. But first I had to heal myself.”

That healing process began as soon as he enrolled as a microbiology major at the University of Florida in Gainesville, where almost immediately he sought help at the counseling center. And then came the life-changing opportunity to live in India for a year through a study abroad program. He lived in Varanasi, where he was exposed to Hindi and rediscovered Aji’s world all over again.

By the time he returned to Florida in 2004, just one year shy of completing his undergraduate degree, he was on an alternative path and changed his major to religious studies. “My parents were disappointed I wasn’t going to become a doctor,” he says. “But they didn’t protest. And neither did they object when I decided to move to Queens after graduation. I was still looking for my happiness.”

For the next seven years he taught ESL as community empowerment for immigrants, a rewarding experience because he saw himself in the faces of his students, young immigrants from India, Guyana, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. “It was also disheartening to know all the obstacles they had to deal with in order to make something of themselves,” he says. “I had been there myself.”

Mohabir had a hard time letting go of this tough but rewarding job after he decided to enroll in the MFA program at Queens College in 2009, but the incentive to return to academia to focus on his intellectual and creative growth was strong. “When I told my mother I was headed back to school to get an MFA, she was relieved I was finally aiming for a practical degree,” Mohabir recalls. “Until I clarified that this wasn’t a master of finance but a master of fine arts.” And then came the next admission: that he wanted to write poetry. “It was like coming out to her all over again,” he says. He suspects that somehow she knew he would end up in good hands.  

“Queens College was so good to me,” he says. “It took me four years to complete my degree but my professors knew that I was on a long journey with winding roads.” During his time there, he received a fellowship from the American Institute of Indian Studies to study the Hindi language and culture in Jaipur for a year. Since his department had a translation component, the administrators encouraged this supplementary education, which fueled Mohabir’s imagination and work. Nicole Cooley, director of the school’s MFA program in creative writing and literary translation, was particularly thrilled for Mohabir. “His studies in India and his work with translation enriched and invigorated his poems,” she says. “They’re experimental in the very best sense, crossing boundaries in ways that open up our understanding of language and the world.”

But it was a challenge posed in Cooley’s poetry workshop that gave Mohabir permission to pursue the sensitive subject matter that shapes The Taxidermist’s Cut. She said simply, “Write something that scares you.” Suddenly, Mohabir was looking inward, unearthing the fears and anxieties of his youth in Chuluota, where he felt his body suffocating. “To be a man of color is tough. To be a queer man of color is even tougher,” he says. “I felt vulnerable being both, but I also learned to be fierce, to survive like a coyote in a pack of wolves.”

Lycanthropy—the transformation of a person into a wolf—is a dominant trope in The Taxidermist’s Cut. The speaker perseveres by moving openly among strangers, not necessarily in disguise, but not denying his true nature, either—which waits patiently, itching for the right opportunity to reveal itself. “I think of this book as my journey out of my body’s prisons,” Mohabir says. Intro Prize judge Brenda Shaughnessy was taken by the rawness and honesty of the manuscript, which she says was filled with unexpected turns and surprises. For her, this was a book “pulsing, with life leaping off the page.”

The book is also a conversation with masculinity, the tensions between desire and rejection, pursuit and persecution, and passion and fear, particularly as they are negotiated through the eyes of the paternal figure. The following lines encapsulate these complicated dynamics: “Dear Father, forgive me / for what your body made me, / for what I perverted, being a man / and taking another.”

For Martha Rhodes, the founding editor and director of Four Way Books, The Taxidermist’s Cut is an exciting addition to the independent press’s list: “The energy of Mohabir’s lines is what is particularly remarkable, to my mind. His lyrics, whether pure from the musical heart or erasure, rise from the page and engage our senses. This is what I look for in poetry—this kind of engagement with language,” she says.

By the time Mohabir received word that his book had been selected for publication by Four Way Books, he had already made another life-changing decision: to pursue a PhD at the University of Hawai’i in Mānoa. Currently in his third year of study, his concentration is on postcolonialism and queer theory, and American poetic movements from the 1950s to the present.

This relocation, like the one he made to Queens years earlier, was seamless. “Hawai’i is a perfect fit for my interests,” he says. “This is an occupied nation. Its troubled history, the activism around indigenous rights, and the conversations I have with my classmates from Fiji and the extensive Polynesian lands provide me with quite the political education.” Mohabir can’t contain this excited energy, so I suggest a walk along the beach heading toward Kapi‘olani Park.

As we trudge along the pristine sands of Waikīkī, Mohabir’s earlier statement begins to resonate: There’s always another story beneath the surface. Diamond Head, the majestic volcanic tuff cone, has witnessed the entire narrative. “There’s more to these names than just words on signs,” Mohabir says. “If you look up Queen Kapi‘olani’s story it will make you angry at the travesty of manifest destiny.”

Kapi‘olani Park is located along Kalākaua Drive, which is named after the last reigning dynasty overthrown in 1893, opening the door to U.S. occupation. The park, located at the end of a row of high-end boutiques, is populated by homeless people. Homelessness has become a contentious issue on the island. “Living here makes me grapple almost daily with how I belong or don’t belong, and that makes me a more ethical person,” Mohabir says.

For him, poetry began as a way to understand the self, but it also became a way to keep stories alive, particularly those that shaped his consciousness. Though The Taxidermist’s Cut has only recently been published, he has already signed a contract with Tupelo Press for his second book, The Cowherd’s Son, which won the Kundiman Prize and is slated for publication in 2018. “I use more creole in this second book,” he says. “I use phrases and couplets in Bhojpuri because language is identity. And resistance.” This is certainly a palpable lesson reaffirmed by Hawai’ian history and culture.

And although he’s immersed in his doctoral studies, Mohabir is still able to write poems, which are being influenced by the landscape and ecology of Hawai’i. It’s become an inevitable outcome of his residence on the island. When I press him for a specific example of this new direction in his work, he says: “I’ve begun writing about whales.” He looks out into the ocean as if they can be spotted in that instant. I scan the water, and then I understand completely: Of course they’re there, underneath the surface.

Rigoberto González is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.  

 

Big Change to Canadian Poetry Prize

by

Spencer Quong

6.14.23

For more than two decades, Canada’s Griffin Poetry Prize divided submissions into two pools: one for books written or translated into English by Canadian poets and another for such books by poets from around the world. A prize, last year valued at $65,000 Canadian (approximately $48,000), went to the winner of each cohort. Last September, however, the Griffin announced that all poets and translators would vie for a single prize. Worth $130,000 Canadian (approximately $96,000), the Griffin is now reportedly the largest international award of its kind. The change has drawn criticism from some in the Canadian literary world who fear that Canadian poets and presses are losing a major platform.

Canadian businessman Scott Griffin, who cofounded the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2000 alongside five acclaimed writers serving as trustees, including Margaret Atwood and Robert Hass, frames the change to the prize as a sign of confidence in Canadian poetry. While the dual-winner system was conceived to put Canadian and international poets on the same stage at a time when Canadian poets needed publicity, today “Canadians can more than hold their own,” Griffin says.

But the idea that Canadians are now competing on “equal footing” with their peers abroad, as Griffin has told the media, is “disingenuous at best,” according to Canadian writer Alicia Elliott. In a September 2022 column for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), she argued that poets outside Canada tend to be “better funded and more widely reviewed,” factors that may make them more competitive for the prize or finalist list. To be considered for the Griffin, a press must submit a first-edition poetry collection published during the year prior to the award. In the case of translated works, translators split the cash prize with the original poet; the former receives 60 percent and the latter 40 percent of the award. (Self-published books are ineligible.)

As it turns out, three Canadians did make this year’s longlist and two progressed to the shortlist: Susan Musgrave for Exculpatory Lilies (McClelland & Stewart, 2022) and Iman Mersal for The Threshold (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022), translated from the Arabic by Robyn Creswell, who is American. But they were up against three U.S. poets: Ada Limón, Ocean Vuong, and the eventual winner, announced on June 7, Roger Reeves.

The Griffin organization has offered something of a consolation prize to Canadians, creating a new award of $10,000 Canadian (approximately $7,400) for a first book by a Canadian poet, selected from the submissions to the larger international prize. The 2023 winner, announced in May, is Emily Riddle for The Big Melt (Nightwood Editions, 2022). But even as it carves out space for debut Canadian poets, that prize is evidently a very different kind of opportunity than the flagship Griffin. Previously there were three Canadian finalists, each of whom received at least $10,000 Canadian. Now the Griffin judges will select a ten-book longlist and a five-book shortlist of international poets; shortlisters will each receive $10,000 Canadian.

Poet D.M. Bradford says their life transformed after being named a finalist for the 2022 Canadian prize for their debut collection, Dream of No One but Myself (Brick Books, 2021). It was a “huge factor” in their ability to quit their day job to pursue poetry full-time. The recognition bolstered both their confidence and profile. “Nothing else I’ve experienced can be compared to the scope of the media coverage the Canadian prize was able to generate,” they say. “Opportunities, interest in my work, and platforms to present it grew in a way I could never have expected.” As a finalist, the $10,000 Canadian Bradford received gave them “an added bit of stability.”

Money and professional opportunity aside, Bradford says the restructuring betrays a misunderstanding of why Canadians valued the national prize: “The place the Griffin earned in the Canadian poetry community wasn’t a matter of it leveling the playing field for our poets; it was the fact that it massively celebrated our poets and their work because they’re worthy of massive celebration.” Bradford questions the impulse to have Canadians measure up against those elsewhere: “There’s real insecurity in the argument that celebrating Canadian poetry on its own was some kind of cheat code.”

Alayna Munce, publisher of the Canadian poetry press Brick Books, similarly extolled the value of the national prize: “For over twenty years it opened a space for serious public conversation about Canadian poetry.” Brick Books published Bradford’s shortlisted volume as well as three other Griffin finalists and two winners. “Literary prizes are huge for the discoverability of our books,” Munce says. “And even bigger as door-openers for our poets.”

The discord between Griffin and some Canadian poets, then, is at least partially philosophical—or reflects different priorities. Scott Griffin believes in doubling down on the international prize because “poetry crosses all borders,” he says. He expressed concern that Canada sometimes has a “parochial view” of the arts, prioritizing the local at the expense of the international. Surely many Canadians would dispute this claim, but as critic Amanda Perry points out in the Canadian literary journal the Walrus: “Philanthropists can, at the end of the day, do whatever they think is best.”

It remains to be seen whether the Griffin can rally the “massive celebration” for global poetry in English that it did for Canadian poetry. James F. English, the author of The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value (Harvard University Press, 2005), says it is difficult to earn status on the international stage. Individual poets may be thrilled by the opportunity to win $130,000 Canadian ($96,000), but the Griffin must still compete with many older national and international awards to capture the attention of a global audience and achieve Scott Griffin’s stated objective to “raise the profile of poetry.”

The deadlines for submissions to the 2024 Griffin Poetry Prize are June 30 for books published between January 1 and June 30, 2023, and December 31 for books published in the second half of the year.

 

Spencer Quong is a writer and editor from the Yukon, Canada.

South Korean poet Kim Hyesoon reads from Autobiography of Death (New Directions, 2018), winner of the 2019 international Griffin Poetry Prize, during a ceremony in Toronto with translator Don Mee Choi (left).  (Credit: Griffin Poetry Prize)

Literary Prizes Under Scrutiny

by

Jen DeGregorio

4.12.23

Poets Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young—friends and colleagues at Mills College in Oakland, where they both teach—leaped into the seemingly unpoetic world of statistical analysis sixteen years ago. What began as an inquiry into gender parity in poetry publishing has expanded into a much more ambitious project, with a more complex and provocative question at its heart: “Who gets to be a writer?” Their search for an answer has led them and their former student Claire Grossman, now pursuing her PhD at Stanford University, to amass an enormous set of data tracking demographic and other information about nearly 1,800 writers over the past century.

What these writers share is having won what Grossman, Spahr, and Young call a “major literary prize”: one of fifty U.S. national-level awards of at least $10,000 in poetry, fiction, or without genre specification. These honors include well-known prizes such as the National Book Award and lesser-known accolades, such as the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The Jackson Poetry Prize from Poets & Writers—founded in 2006 with a current value of $80,000—is also among those counted. Grossman, Spahr, and Young gathered information on more than 1,100 known judges of forty-one prizes as well. Their effort in tallying these numbers has been a matter both personal and professional, allowing them to satiate their personal curiosity while contributing to the scholarly discourse around literary production that is part of their work as academics. They aim to better understand the system of literary reward in the United States and who is represented in that system, which has far-reaching implications.

“We were thinking a lot about how higher education really shapes and frames pathways to becoming an artist of all kinds,” Young says. “And I think the prize began to emerge as one of those really increasingly powerful shaping mechanisms.” More than cash, a major literary award affords a writer attention, drawing a wider readership and professional opportunities, adds Young.

What she, Grossman, and Spahr have learned from their data is unsettling. The sphere of major literary prizes has ballooned in the period they studied: from one prize in 1918—the Pulitzer—to fifty named awards in 2020, with eighty possible annual prizewinners in different genre categories. Those winners have become much more diverse in terms of race and gender but they are ever more closely linked to elite educational and professional networks, or “the prestige apparatus,” as Grossman calls it.

The most crucial and enduring factor in that apparatus is elite education. By their calculations, about 40 percent of prize winners between 1918 and 2019 went to an Ivy League college—a percentage that has held steady for the past century, according to “Literature’s Vexed Democratization,” their 2021 article in American Literary History (ALH), a peer-reviewed journal published by Oxford University Press. Graduate degrees are increasingly common among the winners of major literary prizes, reaching 80 percent in recent years, according to the article, with half of MFA-holding winners attending one of a quartet of schools: Columbia University, New York University, University of California in Irvine, and the University of Iowa. The biggest player among these is Iowa, home of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, whose graduates are forty-nine times more likely to win a major literary prize compared with those of any other MFA program since 2000.

That last data point was published in “Who Gets to Be a Writer?,” which appeared in 2021 in Public Books, an online magazine that frames academic scholarship for a general audience. In that article, Grossman, Spahr, and Young object to the idea that their data merely “reflects excellence at work” in elite institutions, pointing out how socioeconomic disadvantages can be a barrier to entry for even great writers. “We think a lot about the student who went to Local State College prior to any of the 226 or so MFA programs other than Iowa,” they wrote, citing such students they have known. “Their writing is, if measured by all accounts that we understand, excellent. So it is heartbreaking to realize that the odds of being recognized by the literary establishment are stacked against them.”

For writers of color, the odds are further stacked, according to their article in ALH. Holding an elite degree, Grossman, Spahr, and Young contend, is much more important for nonwhite writers than white writers: While 55 percent of prizewinning writers of color in the twenty-first century hold an MFA, only 34 percent of their white counterparts do. For Black writers, the curve is even steeper: 60 percent of prizewinning Black writers hold an MFA, and they are far more likely to have an Ivy League degree than white prizewinners. Spahr, Young, and Grossman have described the situation by invoking Claudia Rankine’s statement in the New York Times in 2015 about Serena Williams: “The notable difference between Black excellence and white excellence is white excellence is achieved without having to battle racism.”

The reality of what amounts to a higher standard for writers of color, particularly Black writers, is important context to keep in mind when considering what are perhaps the most heartening of Grossman, Spahr, and Young’s findings: Their research states that about one-third of major literary prizes from 2000 to 2018 were won by writers who identified as other than white, roughly the same percentage of people who did in the 2010 U.S. census, according to their article in ALH. The gains for Black writers have been even more impressive: “In 2017, Black writers for the first time won more literary prizes, 38 percent, than writers of any other race or ethnicity,” Grossman, Young, and Spahr wrote in “Who Gets to Be a Writer?”

This suggests progress after a twentieth century in which writers of color “were not awarded major prizes with any consistency until the turn to multiculturalism in the 1990s,” Grossman, Spahr, and Young wrote in the ALH article. Yet literary production in the United States remains disproportionately white, according to their calculations in “Who Gets to Be a Writer?”: 90 percent of circulating titles in the twenty-first century are by white writers, a figure they came to after analyzing a sample from Books in Print, a database tracking all titles with ISBNs, including self-published books. Other studies that have excluded self-published books have found a similar preponderance of white authorship, including a 2020 report in the New York Times by McGill University professor Richard Jean So. In this light the literary prize may be seen as a veil draped over a still-exclusionary literary landscape, offering only “a limited, curated version of diversity,” the trio wrote in their ALH article.

All of these trends are more pronounced among poets. Not only are there more major literary prizes dedicated to poetry, but the monetary awards are more crucial due to poetry’s relatively small readership. In “On Poets and Prizes,” a 2020 article in the peer-reviewed ASAP/Journal, Grossman, Spahr, and Young likened the major literary prize for poetry to an “economy of favors.” While conceding that there is a fine line between mentorship and cronyism, they tracked a complex web of interconnection among poetry judges, prizewinners, teachers, and students—implicating some of the biggest names in contemporary poetry.

In December, a large portion of the raw data Grossman, Spahr, and Young have used in their analyses was made public—under the name “Index of Major Literary Prizes in the U.S.”—by the Post45 Data Collective at Emory University. Part of the growing field of digital humanities scholarship, the Post45 Data Collective houses peer-reviewed data for sharing among cultural scholars, aiming to “lay bare the mechanisms that maintain hierarchies across the arts,” as Dan Sinykin, an assistant professor at Emory and one of the collective’s editors, put it in a January article in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

The data that Grossman, Spahr, and Young published through the Post45 Data Collective was a smaller set than the one they have used to come up with their published findings on the changing demographics of prizewinners: While it lists individual prizewinning writers and judges by name, it does not list their racial identities, which they assessed by consulting self-identifications in author bios, inclusions in race-based anthologies, and other sources. Young said the decision to exclude racial identification from the data they sent to the collective stemmed from their reluctance to label named writers. “It feels really crucial for understanding the big picture,” Young says of having data on writers’ racial identities to report on broad trends, particularly given conversations about equity and inclusion that have swept the literary world. But “it didn’t really feel great to us to release something in which we once again were racializing people or to reinforce those categories,” Young says.

For the Post45 Data Collective, the decision to publish Grossman, Spahr, and Young’s data was focused on the set offered for publication: “The question for the Post45 Data Collective then became: Is this data set as submitted valuable—relevant and reusable—for post-1945 scholarship? For me and my coeditor, the answer was overwhelmingly yes,” Sinykin says. “Our judgment isn’t enough, though, peer review has to agree, and the peer review report came in overwhelmingly in support of publication.”

Richard Jean So, the McGill University professor who authored the New York Times report on the whiteness of fiction, was the editor of Grossman, Spahr, and Young’s “Who Gets to Be a Writer?” in his capacity as the digital humanities section editor of Public Books. So says he saw their data on race and found it to be “really credible and strong.” He points out that it is “not uncommon” for raw data to be withheld from public view even as scholars are publishing analyses of that data. So is also on the editorial board of the Post45 Data Collective, but he says he was not involved in the peer review of Grossman, Spahr, and Young’s data set; it was sent out for “blind” review by another scholar in the field, according to Sinykin. “I think the work that they’re doing is really important,” So says of Grossman, Spahr, and Young’s research, conceding that it is a “problematic exercise” to characterize writers by race, particularly for white scholars, in the case of Spahr and Young; Grossman does not identify as white. But the problematics are worth risking if the work “can lead to genuine insights about equity in the publishing industry that can lead to change,” says So, the author of Redlining Culture: A Data History of Racial Inequality and Postwar Fiction (Columbia University Press, 2020). “My hope is that their work is going to inspire more follow-up work by writers and scholars of color, people who will see the data and problem differently, and that will expand our perspective.”    

 

Jen DeGregorio is an associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

A graph based on data from Grossman, Spahr, and Young shows the growing number of major literary prizes offered in different genre categories, on a five-year average. (Credit: Adapted from a graph courtesy of Claire Grossman, Juliana Spahr, and Stephanie Young)

Book Prize Celebrates Older Poets

by

liz gonzález

6.15.22

Even as the number of awards for debut poetry books seems to have increased over the years, an inordinate number of those awards are won by writers age forty and under. Some awards even have an age limit of thirty-five or younger. But Passager Books, an independent press based in Baltimore, recognizes that not all debut poets are “young,” that youth is not a prerequisite for talent and relevance. In 2018 the press established one of a handful of prizes offered by small presses for older poets: the Henry Morgenthau III First Book Poetry Prize. The award is “given biennially for a first book of poems by a writer age seventy or older” and includes $3,000 and publication of the winning manuscript. This spring, Passager announced the newest recipient of the prize: seventy-year-old Mark Elber, whose collection of poems, Headstone, will be released in October.

Passager Books has long been at the forefront of highlighting older writers. Since its inception in 2005, the press has exclusively published writers age fifty and over. As its mission statement explains, the press is “committed to providing opportunities for our writers’ public expression and promoting the public’s understanding of the creativity and achievement of older writers.” In 2016 the press published Henry Morgenthau III’s first collection of poems, A Sunday in Purgatory, when he was ninety-nine. “For Passager, he was a shining star, his imagination and creativity really on fire,” says Kendra Kopelke, Passager’s coeditor and cofounder. Inspired by his example, the press and Morgenthau discussed establishing a prize in his name. The details were almost complete when Morgenthau died in 2018. His three children—Sarah, Ben, and Kramer Morgenthau—worked with Passager to bring the prize to fruition. David Keplinger, a poet and a teacher and mentor to Morgenthau, was recruited to serve as the judge.  

The Morgenthau prize is predicated on an understanding that there are a variety of reasons a talented poet who is seventy or older may not have previously published a book. Morgenthau, who had a long, distinguished career as a TV producer and documentarian, did not begin writing poetry until he was in his nineties, when he participated in a poetry workshop at a retirement community in Washington, D.C. Dennis H. Lee, the 2020 prizewinner for his book Tidal Wave, began writing poetry in his mid-forties when he joined a poetry group after his wife died—“to learn how to write poems to her and about her,” he says. He submitted the first poetry manuscript he wrote in 2010 to several publishers over the years, but it was not accepted. In 2018, at age seventy-two, he collected poems into the manuscript that became Tidal Wave and submitted it to only one other publisher before revising it and submitting it to the Morgenthau prize.

Elber, the prize’s newest winner, has been writing poetry since he was fourteen years old, but his path to publishing a book was circuitous. He continued writing poetry throughout college until graduate school, which afforded him little free time. He eventually left school with the intention to return to writing poetry, but instead he dedicated himself to songwriting and later to parenthood, teaching, and attending rabbinical school. He was ordained in 2012. Along the way he also published two prose books: The Everything Kabbalah Book (Adams Media Corporation, 2006) and The Sacred Now: Cultivating Jewish Spiritual Consciousness (Wipf and Stock, 2017). “Throughout those years, as close to my heart as poetry was, I devoted myself to it in spurts,” says Elber. During those spurts he studied with poets Allen Ginsberg and Philip Levine and attended three writing residencies. He wrote the first draft of his manuscript in the early 1990s. “As time went on I kept revising the manuscript—meaning that when I thought that newer poems were stronger than some of the poems in the manuscript, I would revise the manuscript accordingly.” After recently receiving an encouraging rejection from a publisher, he revised his manuscript again and submitted it to the Morgenthau prize.

For both Elber and Lee the prize represents a unique opportunity to see a dream realized. “There are many of us older folks who have written poetry—maybe for many years as I have—who don’t believe they will ever have the opportunity to publish a book,” says Lee. “This prize gives us a chance.”

Elber agrees, noting that the prize offers something of value not only to older writers, but also to the communities around them: “I believe it’s intrinsically valuable to have poetry out in the world that comes from all different places, peoples, experiences, and demographics. The greater the variety we’re exposed to, the more we can comprehend what it means to be human. Having a first poetry book prize specifically for poets who are seventy and over affirms the value of the life perspective people of that age can bring to the page.”  

The next deadline for the prize will be in February 2024.

 

liz gonzález, author of Dancing in the Santa Ana Winds: Poems y Cuentos New and Selected (Los Nietos Press, 2018), is a fourth-generation southern Californian. Her writing recently appeared in Air/Light, Poets & Writers Magazine, the International Literary Quarterly, and elsewhere.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Mark Elber studied with Peter Levine. Elber studied with poet Philip Levine.

Mark Elber, winner of the 2022 Henry Morgenthau III First Book Poetry Prize.

Young and Adorable: Rewriting the Narrative of Women Writers’ Success

by

Miciah Bay Gault

4.8.20

When I was in my MFA program, the faculty, my fellow graduate students, and I took visiting writers out to dinner after their readings. We sat at round tables eating spaghetti, garlic bread, and salad and talked about their lives and their work. I looked forward to these dinners, to this kind of informal contact with visiting writers, because the thing I’d wanted most fiercely since I was six years old was to be a writer. In my twenties and officially a writer-in-training, I felt there were things I couldn’t learn in workshops or from reading the fiction I loved. Not how to write but rather how to be a writer. How did writers dress, what drinks did they order, how did they shake hands? I wanted role models. These dinners, I thought, were the ideal occasions to find them.

One visiting writer was especially stylish and charismatic. She lived and taught in New York City, and I admired her novels and the editorial work for which she was known. When I introduced myself to her after dinner she was friendly, if guarded. I noticed her jewelry, the way she held her hands. We chatted about my work. Then she tilted her head to the side and studied me. “You’ll be successful,” she said. “You’re young and adorable.”

Every day after that, every morning I woke up one day older, one day less adorable, I felt the success she seemed so sure of slipping through my fingers. 

In general my MFA experience was wonderful, and my teachers were almost supernaturally kind, respectful, and generous. I’m not sure why their powerful support wouldn’t drown out an offhand comment from a visiting writer I met once. But those seven words had a profound impact on me, maybe because she was voicing a cultural belief about women in the arts, and in publishing, that I’d noted for some time. I had often heard the idea that a woman’s looks were linked to her success. But the emphasis of the visiting writer’s words was not on sex appeal or even beauty. You’ll be successful. You’re young and adorable. Her emphasis was on cuteness, a quality we praise in kids and kittens. I could be successful as long as I was fresh-faced, dewy-eyed, and green. 

Fine. If those were the terms, then my grad-school self would take them. In fact I liked the idea of being peppy and innocent, a stock character in my own story. I had always thought I’d end up in New York City for a while; I was ready to meet up at Elaine’s or the Algonquin, to stroll the tree-lined sidewalks of Brooklyn, to satisfy my received notions of a writer’s life in the Big Apple. Only, of course, it wasn’t that simple. The idea of success predicated on cuteness was complicated for me by the fact that after I finished my MFA, I was getting married and moving to Vermont, where my fiancé lived. He had a four-year-old daughter and shared custody. There was no question of my relocating. Vermont felt—culturally and physically—very far away from any kind of arts or publishing hub. Instead of striking out to be an ingenue in the city, I moved to the country, which at times felt like choosing invisibility. Being young and adorable didn’t matter if no one ever saw me.

By the time I was thirty-five, I’d had a baby and my stepdaughter was ten. I was the editor of Hunger Mountain, the literary magazine at Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA), and some of my own stories and essays were appearing in journals I admired. It was a start, but it didn’t feel like success. I experienced a kind of low-grade anxiety all the time. Was I still young at thirty-five? Was I adorable? I spent a lot of time changing diapers and blending avocados and peaches. I felt grubby and exhausted. By the time I was thirty-eight, I’d had another baby and been hired as director of the new MFA in Writing & Publishing program at VCFA. I’d also helped launch the Vermont Book Award. I was with writers all the time—young MFA students, established faculty, popular visiting writers we took out for dinner after their readings. I was proud of my work at the college. I often felt embedded in a beautiful literary scene in Vermont; I was dispelling the myth of geography that implied it was New York or nowhere. 

The story about youth was much harder to unlearn. Nothing I did seemed like enough. I worked hard, I supported other writers, I read, studied, trained myself to write better sentences, agonized over plot. But: Aging was unavoidable. It was out of my hands.

The last day of my thirties I cried the entire time. I mean, I wept. I was embarrassed to be so sad, but I couldn’t help it. I wasn’t yet a writer—at least, without a published book, I didn’t then believe myself to be—and I was staring into middle age. If I met the visiting writer at a dinner now, she would have a very different message for me. 

You’ll be successful. You’re young and adorable. I remember that when she first said the words to me, I’d been taken aback, but I didn’t understand why. She was offering a compliment, wasn’t she? Now at forty, even as I wept to confront my so-called advanced age, still under the thumb of so much of our culture’s thinking, I understood that calling a woman adorable diminishes her. The double bind was clear: Being “young and adorable” could get you noticed as a woman writer, but it also infantilized you. It denied you power and agency. It was a way in, but one that dismissed your work and positioned you as innocuous; age at all, though, and your shot at getting that work read might be gone. When was the magical time at which a woman was old enough to be taken seriously but young enough to still find success? It didn’t exist. The window of opportunity was shut tight.

The worst part was that I felt complicit in some ways in the adoration of youth. I loved that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein before she was twenty, the story of her tender age somehow giving the book an even greater mythic charge. I was smitten with Karen Russell and Helen Oyeyemi, not only because of their fascinating fiction, but because they were fascinating—prodigies with acclaimed debuts by twenty-six. My dreams about being a writer usually were about being a young writer. I wanted to be recognized for insuppressible talent, not hard work and discipline. I wanted the particular kind of attention I knew a young talent receives, the once-a-generation 20 Under 40 recognition, the 5 Under 35 accolade. 

The publishing world makes much of debuts, which I’ve come to like, this sense that the writer is making a first appearance in the society of their peers. It’s a rite of passage without a traditional ceremony. Maybe when we celebrate debuts and experience that wonderful communal excitement over a writer’s career beginning, we want that writer to be young so their career can be long

But I don’t really buy this. I think a culturally pervasive obsession with youth has led us to believe in an age or cuteness barometer for success, especially for women, that doesn’t really exist and certainly is not necessary. We can fete a young writer without furthering the message that her value is linked to her age and her appearance. In a discipline that values wisdom and insight, there should be no time limit, no window of opportunity for success. Writers of all ages have produced moving,  powerful books. Lyrical brilliance knows no age. Insight into the human condition changes over time; the insights of a twenty-five-year-old are different from the insights of a seventy-five-year-old. All are valuable. All make for stories worth telling.

One August night the year I turned forty, I stayed out late at the bar with many of the faculty and attendees at the postgraduate writing conference at VCFA. It was a warm evening. We moved from inside out to the balcony. There were writers of all ages and at various stages in their careers. Their books were National Book Award finalists, New York Times best-sellers, Oprah’s Book Club picks. Many were older than me. I was doing the same thing I had done back at the spaghetti dinners of my MFA days: looking for clues about how to be a writer. Now, though, more than a decade out of grad school, I was looking for different things. I watched how the writers treated the bartender, how they held my attention, how they handled success, failure. I was no longer so taken in by style or charisma, charms that had once drawn me to that visiting writer—that is to say, the superficial terms by which I’d internalized her success, not, I realize, so unlike the terms on which she predicted mine. 

Our ice melted in our drinks. The summer constellations drifted above us. Everyone was telling stories, talking fast. 

“As for me,” I said a little hysterically, “I just turned forty. A writer once told me I’d be successful because I was young and adorable. That was twelve years ago. Ha ha! I’ve been working on my novel for all those years, getting older and older every day.”

They didn’t exactly laugh. But they smiled sympathetically. Maybe they’d had experiences like this. Maybe I just seemed unstrung. 

Later, the National Book Award finalist stood to leave. Before he went he kneeled down in front of me, took my hands. 

“Twelve years is the perfect length of time to work on a novel,” he said. “Forty is the perfect age. You’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing.”

I gathered up my cardigan and phone and went back into the bar. A bat had flown inside, and it swooped around the room in an elaborate feat of echolocation. No one shrieked; we all stared in pity and curiosity, ducking our heads when it came too close. I felt a sense of elation, and relief. I wanted the bat to fly out the back door, swing up into the sky all lit up with stars. You’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing. 

Again, the writer’s words were so powerful because they gave voice to something I was ready to hear, a belief I was fumbling toward on my own: that there is no deadline by when we must “succeed,” that the work is limitless and unfolds on a different time scale than our looks, or our health, or even our lives. 

I don’t mind when people comment on my appearance. I’m flattered when I’m told I look young. But to link my youth with my hope of success in writing was a deep unkindness and injustice. It made me doubt my choices, my decision to get married and have children. It made me see the passage of time as a frightful antagonist. 

Today, teaching in an MFA program, I have students of all ages, and many could be called young and adorable. I love spending time with them, their company charged by the particular electricity of writers seeing themselves in their work for the first time and recognizing their own dreams and ambitions in their classmates. But for the ones who are going to be wildly successful—and I think several will be—it will happen because of hard work, talent, and luck, because they’re able to shrug off rejection and keep trying, because they pursue their obsessions. These qualities are more powerful than youth or geography and will sustain them through decades-long writing careers that may start soon after graduation or years later. Some of them will move to New York  City when they graduate. Some will move elsewhere, for love, or for family, or for work. All of them will age. 

There is no finite period in which to do the work. There is no geographical sweet spot where we must do the work. The work takes as much time as it takes, and we can do the work anywhere. The window is wide open. The window is always open. 

 

Miciah Bay Gault is the author of the debut novel Goodnight Stranger, published by Park Row Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, in 2019.

First Fiction 2019

by

Staff

6.12.19

For our nineteenth annual roundup of the summer’s best debut fiction, we asked five established authors to introduce this year’s group of debut writers. Read the July/August 2019 issue of the magazine for interviews between Ruchika Tomar and R.O. Kwon, Chia-Chia Lin and Yaa Gyasi, Miciah Bay Gault and Melissa Febos, De’Shawn Charles Winslow and Helen Phillips, and Regina Porter and Jamel Brinkley. But first, check out these exclusive readings and excerpts from their debut novels.

A Prayer for Travelers (Riverhead, July) by Ruchika Tomar
The Unpassing (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, May) by Chia-Chia Lin
Goodnight Stranger (Park Row Books, July) by Miciah Bay Gault
In West Mills (Bloomsbury, June) by De’Shawn Charles Winslow
The Travelers (Hogarth, June) by Regina Porter

A Prayer for Travelers
Ruchika Tomar

There were three names listed under Cruz in the phone book, but I didn’t bother trying any of them. Ask Flaca. If Lourdes had been hostile to my call, Flaca, I knew, would hang up the minute she heard my name. I had always considered Penny their favorite; she was always the most admired in school, the one other girls strove to emulate. But Flaca was their backbone, the mainstay, the friend who dispensed favors and counsel. I decided to look for her in the one place I knew she would eventually be forced to return.

It was already dark when I left the diner, but I could have found my way to the palo blindfolded, even with all light stripped away. The Cruzes’ panadería was a flamingo pink storefront at the southernmost corner of a petite arc of businesses that included, among other things, a smoke shop and a laundromat. I parked the truck and climbed out as the barber was closing up for the night, unplugging the red and blue helix in the window, locking the door, rolling a hatched metal gate over the glass. He locked it, rattling the grille to make sure it was secured. Only the bakery stayed open late enough for workers returning from Sparks and Tehacama to drop off their lunch pails and tool kits at home, hunt their children from varied backyards, and corral them to the bakery for tortas and Cokes. As I walked to the entrance, a large blue van pulled up to the curb, unloading a dozen women in identical pressed white uniforms. These women were Pomoc’s illusionists, soon to be ferried out to office buildings and casinos and hospitals in southern cities, armed only with plastic bottles and brooms to toil unseen, tasked with erasing our collective past. I followed them inside and lingered near the wall opposite a glass case full of pan dulces tucked into neat, full rows. The women placed orders for tacos de piña, puerquitos, and coffee strong enough to power them through the evening into the pardoning dawn. Behind a small screen that separated her from customers, Maria’s short, corpulent figure bent to the glass case, shaking out one paper bag after another.

When I was a child, Lamb had brought me here so often that Maria often emerged from behind her veil‑like screen. She clasped me against her supple bulk, flattening dexterous, flour‑dusted fingers across my eyebrows and down the dark tails of my schoolgirl plaits, humoring Lamb with his awkward gringo patois while checking for my growth spurt that never seemed to arrive. Even after all these years her face was still full, a few strands of silver in her high, tight bun catching in the light. When the last of the uniformed women left, I unlatched myself from the wall and stepped up to the counter, searching Maria’s expression for some sense of recognition, an acknowledgment of the pigtailed tomboy who loved her. She nodded at me through the screen. “¿Qué quieres?”

“Is Christina here?”

“No.” Her reply was sharp, as if this was a question she’d been asked too often. Flaca’s business was growing, and it wasn’t hard to guess how many others might have shown up in recent months, seeking a dispensary.

“I just want to talk to her.”

“¿Quieres comprar algo?”

“I used to come here.” I held out my hand flat at my chest, indicating a child’s height. “This tall, overalls. I came with my grandfather. We sat over there.” I pointed to the corner table, the hard plastic chairs. She shrugged.

“You don’t remember me?” My voice sounded more desperate than I intended. What if I split my hair in braids again, if Lamb were beside me, if I clung to his rough hand the way I had then? Instead I pointed to a row of pink conchas behind the glass, as if nostalgia might stir Lamb’s dwindling appetite. “Cuatro, por favor.”

She reached for a pastry box and laid the conchas down like sleeping children. I paid and on my way out, held the door for a father shepherding inside twin girls, the pair of them in light‑up princess sneakers and vague, kittenish smiles. Outside, I stopped at the truck and slid the pastry box on the hood to fish the keys out of my pocket when out of the corner of my eye, I saw a mouse dart out from underneath a nearby car, scurrying along the side of the building to the dumpsters crowding the small back alley. Lamb and I had wandered there more than once to discard our trash, and I knew at the end of the alley lay the bakery’s kitchen where, during any weekday lull, Maria could be found chatting with any number of family members who cycled through to mix dough and answer the phone, transcribing elaborate cake orders. I settled the pastry box in the passenger seat of the truck before shutting the door and picking my way into the dark passage, edging past the dumpsters. Halfway down I could make out a square of light on the brick wall opposite, the top half of the kitchen’s Dutch door pushed open, giving off a backdraft of heat. I peeked in past the tall, silver rolling racks of pastries pulled away from the wall, the working counters covered with bags of yeast, mixing bowls, rows of sweet breads cooling on wire racks. A fan in the corner of the room rattled as it worked, its face pushed up toward the ceiling to keep from blowing flour into powdered mist. A slim girl, her back turned to me, pulled open the top door of an oven, sliding a baking tray inside. She shut it and moved to lean over the fan, shaking out the bottom of the tank top that clung to her, a red bandanna tying back her hair.

“Flaca,” I called her name softly. She made no movement to signal she heard, but a moment later, a familiar pair of hard, dark eyes pinned mine. She crossed the room and reached for the Dutch door, her face already forming a scowl. I took a step back, one foot into the dirt. A voice called out something indecipherable from the other room.

“Nadie, Mama,” Flaca called back. She jutted her chin at me. “What do you want?”

“I need to talk to you.”

“Me? About what?”

“What else? Penny.”

Flaca studied me with an expression I didn’t know how to read. She pushed the door open wider for me to catch, but once inside reached for me so quickly I didn’t have time to pull away. She caught my jaw in her firm grip, moving my face back and forth carefully in the light as if it were a ruby or disaster, something to be appraised. Her breath tickled my chin. This, the closest we had ever been to each other, even as girls.

“Penny didn’t do this,” she said flatly.

“God. Of course not.”

Flaca released me, moving away. It was twenty degrees hotter inside the kitchen, and the skin on my arms began to take on a thin sheen. The room smelled overwhelmingly sweet, the pastries baking in the double oven. I followed her back to the counter where she picked up a silver sifter, shaking powdered sugar over a rack of wedding cookies.

“Dime. You pissed someone off.” “That’s not what I came to talk about.”

“Oh? What does Cale want to talk about?” She set down the sifter and lifted the tray, sliding it onto one of the rolling racks.

“Penny never showed up to work last night,” I spoke to her back. “Maybe you’d know where she is.”

“I have no idea.”

“But you’re always together.”

“So are you,” she said, turning to shoot me a look. “Lately.” 

“Flaca, I went to her place. She didn’t answer. I used the spare. She wasn’t there but she left her cellphone behind. You don’t think that’s weird?”

“That Penny forgot her phone?”

“She didn’t forget it. And she hasn’t come back, not that I know of.”

“Where is it now?”

“What?”

“Her phone, Cale.”

I hesitated. All the drops Penny was making for her, the business Flaca would lose if Penny didn’t have it on her. There was no good way to deliver the news.

“I might have given it to the police.”

“What!”

“I’m sorry! That’s why I’m here.”

Flaca rubbed her face, smearing flour down her cheeks. The bandanna pulling back her hair brought her features into stark focus; the angle of her cheeks and chin, her nose a degree too sharp. I longed for Flaca’s mother to emerge from the front of the shop, to see mother and daughter standing side by side and compare their faces and hands, to ask how some things could be passed down so easily from one to another while other familial aspects were entirely betrayed.

“I didn’t know what else to do. Maybe it could help? I have a feeling—”

“A feeling!”

“Something could be wrong.”

“And what are the cops going to do?”

“Help find her?”

Flaca laughed. In all the time we had been in school together, I couldn’t recall the sound. I had never heard it, or I had heard it too often; it had dissolved into the childhood soundtrack of playground sounds along with the recess bell, the squeak of swing sets, the rhythmic whip of jump ropes slapping the blacktop. It cracked her face wide open, making her appear less birdlike, revealing a pliable warmth: a secret she had kept hidden inside herself all this time.

“You can’t help it, can you?”

“They’re probably going to call you,” I said.

“The cops aren’t going to do shit.”

“How do you know?”

“I know.”

I met her eyes. “If they don’t, who will?”

“Relax. Penny’s fine. If she went somewhere, she’s already back and pissed you went through her shit.”

“Where could she go? She doesn’t have a car.”

“She can get a ride.”

“You’re the one who gives her rides!”

“I’m not the only one.” She said it pointedly, something in it I was supposed to extract.

“Fine. Okay? Say she got a ride. Why hasn’t she come back yet?”

She looked heavenward, as if the answer was soon to arrive. “You don’t understand. She thinks she’s like you. But we’re not anything like you.”

“What’s so wrong with me, anyway?”

“For one thing, you’re dumb about things you never had to know about.”

I realized we were standing at a cross angle from one another, that I had one hand on my hip, that she had both on hers. I wanted to drop my hand, to tell her where I’d found Penny’s phone, and how, the rolls of cash in the freezer, what they might mean. If Penny was here, she would have trusted Flaca enough to tell her about the desert and the sand‑colored man, everything. If we were going to traffic in secrets, Flaca’s could rival us all. Flaca was surveying the pastries on the counters, a curious expression growing on her face, as if they were bizarre, diminutive creatures struggling toward life.

“What is it?”

“How long has it been?” Flaca asked.

“Since she’s been gone? I don’t know. She was supposed to be on shift the night before last. What time is it now?”

“Almost eight. So what is that? Two days? Three?”

I didn’t answer. She looked up, finally seeing me. The wheels in her mind, I could tell, were beginning to turn.

“You have an idea. Someplace she could be.”

“No,” she said. “But maybe I can find out.”

 

Excerpted from A Prayer for Travelers by Ruchika Tomar. Published by Riverhead. Copyright © 2019 by Ruchika Tomar. Audio excerpted courtesy Penguin Random House Audio from A Prayer for Travelers by Ruchika Tomar, narrated by Sophie Amoss.

 
(Photo: Dan Doperalski)
 
 

The Unpassing
Chia-Chia Lin

Pei-Pei was the only one home when I woke.

“How are you feeling?” she asked. It was a real question, without sarcasm.

The door was open, but no sounds drifted in from the other parts of the house. From my bed I could see Pei-Pei lying on her stomach, kicking her legs. My pillow obstructed part of my view. Her bare feet swung in and out of my sight.

“What time is it?” I asked.

“One or two.”

She was still in her sleeping clothes, a set of faded blue long johns with sleeves that were too short. The elastic at the wrists was loose. Her long black hair was tied back, and the shorter front pieces were matted to her temples. When I swung my legs out from the covers, I was wearing pants I had never seen before.

“It’s Tuesday,” she added. “You went to the hospital.”

“You’re not in school?”

She didn’t respond. Her legs pedaled the gummy air.

“We have to go,” I said. “They’re showing the launch. Did we miss it already?”

She nodded. “Yeah, it was last week.”

“Last week?”

“It exploded.”

“What?”

“Everyone died.” She sat up and stared at me, evaluating something in my face.

“What are you talking about?”

“There was a huge cloud of smoke, and then nothing came out of it—no shuttle.”

“What?” I looked around to see if someone, my father or Natty, was laughing at me from the closet. But the door was open, and there were no legs or feet beneath the hanging clothes.

“Believe me. I saw it happen.”

I shook my head, trying to find room for what she was saying.

“There’s something else,” she said. She pushed at a spot on the bridge of her nose. Her face was completely bare and her hair was clawed back. Behind her thick glasses her lashes were sparse, and her eyes were very small and black.

Suddenly I was afraid to look at her face. I tried to smooth the folds in the fitted sheet. It was not my usual one, and the fabric was all twisted and bunched. Later I would discover it was too big for my bed. When I helped my mother change it, we had to shove handfuls of it under the mattress, hiding its excess.

“Ruby’s dead.”

I laughed. I pressed on a wrinkle in the sheet with the heel of my palm, trying to spread it flat.

Pei-Pei took off her glasses and shook them as though they were filled with dust. “You heard me,” she said, “and I don’t want to say it again.”

“Stop joking,” I said.

“I’m not joking,” she said. “It happened two days ago.”

“How?” I asked. As I said it, I pressed a hand to my throat to stop a noise. There was an expanse between what I was saying and what I understood myself to be saying, and the giggle in my chest was trying to morph into something else.

“She got sick. There was an outbreak at school.”

“But she doesn’t even go to school yet.”

“No,” Pei-Pei said. “She doesn’t.”

We stared at each other. Without her glasses on, Pei-Pei’s eyes had expanded. They were not quite black, but the color of winter soil after the snow was scraped away.

Pei-Pei came to my bed. “It’s no one’s fault.”

“Get away,” I said.

She slipped her glasses back on and stood up. She walked to Ruby’s bed, leaned over it, and pulled the blinds up. Light washed over the room; the carpet turned from tan to blond, and the walls glowed. “We’re having a warm spell,” she said. The faded floral blooms on Ruby’s sheets were almost translucent as they bore the brunt of all that sun.

I gazed at Ruby’s bed. It was neat; she almost never slept in it. Her pillow was missing, though, and that one small absence made me uneasy.

After Pei-Pei left, I made my way to the window. I sat there trying to adjust my eyes to the light. Outside, at the end of our dirt driveway, were four trash bags, each opaque black and straining with contents I couldn’t fathom. The bags were knotted, dimpling on top, leaning on one another. One had fallen on its side. Soon I would find myself searching for things around the house: my backpack, my coat, my shoes. My mug, which I had chipped against Natty’s mug in a test to see whose was stronger. It began to seem that everything I had ever touched was missing. Or at least the things most familiar to me were gone.

 

Excerpted from The Unpassing by Chia-Chia Lin. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux May 7th 2019. Copyright © 2019 by Chia-Chia Lin. All rights reserved. 

(Photo: F. Yang)
 

Goodnight Stranger
Miciah Bay Gault

In the dimly lit kitchen—only a single bulb over the sink—I watched my brother’s eyes, huge, glassy. “It’s Baby B,” he said. 

The stranger held still as if afraid to break a spell. His eyes moved from me to Lucas. 

“Baby B is dead,” I said. 

“I’ve been dreaming about him every night,” Lucas said. “I could sense him getting closer, and I thought there was something I was supposed to do. But it wasn’t me after all. You were the one who had to bring him here.” 

“He’s a stranger, Lu. I met him tonight at the inn.”

“Then how do you explain this?” Lucas pointed at Cole’s ankle—at a small tattoo I hadn’t noticed. “Lady’s Slipper.”

We both looked at Cole. “I got that when I was twenty-one,” he said.

“Why that particular flower?” I asked.

“Why? Because it’s beautiful, and rare. And it was someone’s favorite flower—someone I loved—sorry, what is going on? Who’s Baby B?” A flush had risen from his neck to his cheeks. His eyes black, bright.

“He was our brother,” I said. “Sorry, maybe it’s time for you to go.”

“No,” Lucas said. “Don’t go! Here, sit down. I’ll get a beer for you, and we’ll tell you about Baby B. We’ll tell you the whole story.”

It was disorienting to see Lucas talking with a stranger, Lucas who sometimes couldn’t even say hi to Eddie, or the Grendles, or Jim Cardoza, people he’d known his whole life. I felt dizzy, as if the room were tilting around me. 

“I’m always up for a story,” Cole said, sitting at the table. Lucas popped the tab on a PBR, and set it in front of Cole. 

“I need to sit, too,” I said, and they pulled out a chair for me. 

We were up until dawn, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that Lucas talked most of that time. It was as if something had come uncorked, and stories were pouring out of him. 

“His name was Colin,” Lucas said. “I mean even your name is similar.”

“That’s just a coincidence,” I said.

“Did you feel anything?” Lucas asked me.  “When you first saw each other, I mean? Did you have any idea?”

“I did,” the stranger said. “I felt something right away.” 

“Of course I didn’t feel anything,” I said. “Because there’s nothing to feel.”

“Don’t worry,” Lucas said. “She’s always like this at first.”

“Like what?” I said. But I knew what he meant. Practical—trying to tether him to earth. He resented that. But look what happened when I slipped up, when I forgot myself for one night, tried to bring a stranger home, as if I were someone else, someone without responsibilities. Look how that worked out. I felt my heart beating, felt warmth crawling up the back of my neck, sweat prickling my scalp. 

Just before sunrise, Cole went away down the chilly beach promising to come back the next day. Lucas and I stood on the screened-in porch, watched him disappear down the shore. Just before the second jetty, he stopped and found a stone in the sand, skipped it even though it was too dark to see its skittering path through the water.

“Did you see that?” Lucas said. 

“It doesn’t mean anything. A lot of people skip stones.”

“In that exact place?”

As long as I could remember, Lucas had stopped at the second jetty to skip one stone. For good luck. For Baby B. I never knew why he did it. But in my memory I could see him at all these different ages, five years old, ten years old, eighteen, twenty-five. That same flick of the wrist. Stone after stone. 

Lucas tipped his head back and finished his beer. For some reason neither of us wanted to go to bed. We sat on the porch until the grainy light of dawn made visible the dock and the jetties and the boats in the bay. I looked at Lucas and felt a deep ache in my chest—love swelling to enormous proportions inside my ribs. I loved him so much. I wanted to give him everything he wanted. A brother returned from the dead. Our parents too. If I’d known how to do it, what to sacrifice, I would have without hesitation.

It was ironic that our parents had decided to have children so they wouldn’t be alone when they were old. It turned out they didn’t need to worry about growing old at all. Dad had a heart attack when we were in seventh grade. Mom died eight years later—breast cancer. Ever since: just Lucas and me. Alone on the island, alone in the big house they bought for us. 

Early light crept into the porch where we sat, lighting up the table and chairs, the wicker sofa, chenille blanket, potted plants. Everything was in place, but everything felt different. Bhone Bay was out there doing what it always did, tide creeping out, revealing damp raw sand, black sea weed. The red houseboat was anchored where it always was. The light was the same light. The sound of the bay was the same sound. 

But we felt different now, already revised in some indefinable way.  How amazing the change one day can bring, one chance meeting.  Or—maybe not so amazing after all. After all we’d spent a lifetime longing for something—or someone—we could never have. That longing had created a space in us, in our lives, and Cole, in ways I didn’t yet understand, seemed to fit into that space, fill it like a missing puzzle piece.

 

Excerpted from Goodnight Stranger by Miciah Bay Gault. Copyright © 2019 by Miciah Bay Gault. Use with permission from Park Row Books/HarperCollins. 

(Photo: Daryl Burtnett)
 

In West Mills
De’Shawn Charles Winslow

In October of ’41, Azalea Centre’s man told her that he was sick and tired of West Mills and of the love affair she was having with moonshine. Azalea—everyone called her Knot—reminded him that she was a grown woman.

“Stop tellin’ me how old you is,” Pratt said.

“Well, I thought maybe you forgot,” Knot retorted. She was sitting at her kitchen table, pulling bobby pins from her copper-red hair. She picked up her glass and finished what was left in it. She had barely set it back on the table when Pratt picked it up and threw it against the wall. He then packed all his clothes in the old suitcase he’d brought when he moved into her little house a few years back.

“I’m gettin’ outta here,” he affirmed.

“Need some help packin’?” Knot shot back, and she laughed. It wasn’t the first time Pratt had packed that ragged bag. He stared at her, frowning.

“Drink ya’self to death, if that’s what you want to do.”

“Go to hell, Pratt.”

“I’m leavin’ hell!” he yelled.

A few days later, Knot came home and found a folded note peeping out from under her door. First, she looked down at the signature. When she saw Pratt Shepherd at the bottom, she took a chilled glass from her icebox, poured a drink, and sat down to look over the message. She read most of it. It said that Pratt was at his sister’s house, just across the lane. Knot wasn’t surprised. Pratt’s sister and her two little girls were the only family he had in West Mills.

In the letter, Pratt reminded her that he still loved her, still wanted to marry her, and still wanted to start a family with her. He wrote that he would wait around for just one week. Then he was going back home to Tennessee. That’s where Knot stopped reading. She laughed out loud, tossed the paper onto the table, and set her glass down on it. Funny—it was usually the books she used to teach her pupils that got the wet glass.

Knot would be lying if she told anyone that Pratt wasn’t a good man. He didn’t mind hard work, he picked up after himself, he kept his body nice and clean, and he knew how to give her joy in bed. But the truth was Pratt wasn’t much fun to her otherwise. He didn’t have much to talk about. And he couldn’t hold his liquor to save his life. After two drinks Pratt was laid out, spilling over, or both. Knot liked men who could match her shot for shot, keep her mind busy when they weren’t drunk, and still do all the other things Pratt could do. Aside from all that, her father—she called him Pa—wouldn’t like Pratt. If she were ever going to be married, it would have to be a man her pa loved just as much as she did.

Pratt’s threat to leave West Mills could not have come with better timing, because Knot’s twenty-seventh birthday was a week around the corner. When the weekend came, she walked down the lane—two houses to the left of her house—to tell her good friend Otis Lee Loving all about her newfound freedom. And since Knot visited him most Saturday mornings, and knew he would be in the kitchen, she didn’t bother knocking.

“You need to go on over there and fix things up with Pratt,” Otis Lee said. “Otherwise, he gon’ be on the next thing headed west.” Otis Lee set a cup of black coffee on the table in front of Knot; his face was angry-looking and peach. He didn’t sit down. Just then, his wife, Pep, showed up at the table with a boiled egg and a biscuit, all inside the cracked, sand-colored bowl Knot wished they would throw away.

“Pratt can catch the next thing to hell,” Knot replied. 

Pep pushed the bowl in front of Knot, next to the coffee.

She didn’t sit down, either. Knot looked up at them and wondered what the day’s lecture would be about.

“Eat,” Pep commanded. Even at seven o’clock in the morning, her round face looked full and healthy, as though she had slept on a pillow made of air. Not the rough, feather-stuffed pillows Knot used.

“I thought I left my mama in Ahoskie,” Knot scoffed. “Y’all got anything I can pour in this coffee? Something ’sides milk, I mean.”

“Why you so set on bein’ lonely, Knot?” Otis Lee asked.

Pep looked down at Otis Lee as though he had gone off script. And he looked up at Pep as if to say, I couldn’t help myself. The way he and Pep stood there, side by side, made them look more like a boy and his mother than a husband and his wife. Why the two of them behaved so much like old people, Knot never understood. They were only five years older than she was. For Knot, it was Otis Lee’s being happily married, being too short, and old-man ways that ruined the handsomeness she’d seen on him when they’d first met. And that handsomeness, as striking as it was, had never caused the feeling Knot got deep in her stomach when she met a man she wanted to touch, or be touched by, in the dim light of her oil lamp.

“Y’all know he tried to beat me, don’t ya?”

Otis Lee and Pep both sighed, at the same time. Knot wondered if they had rehearsed it.

“You sit to my table and tell that tale?” Otis Lee reproached. Then he began with his You know good’n well this and You know good’n well that. At times like these Knot had to work hard to keep her cool. Because if she didn’t, she might tell Otis Lee that if he spent more time worrying about his own life, and his own family, he might know that the woman he knew as his mother, wasn’t; she was kin but not his mother. If his real mama is anything like mine, better for him if he don’t know. Ain’t none of my business anyhow.

“Tell me one thing,” Knot said. “Why y’all always take his side?”

“It ain’t just about Pratt’s side, Knot,” Otis Lee insisted. “You need to be nicer to everybody ’round here.” Knot heard bits and pieces of what Otis Lee recounted about how her drinking had gotten out of hand; how she seemed to want to be by herself more than anything nowadays—unless she was at Miss Goldie’s Place, of course. Knot started nibbling on the biscuit and then on the egg, trying not to hear all the things she already knew about herself.

Otis Lee turned to Pep and mused, “You remember when she used to go see the children and they mamas, Pep? Used to visit people just ’cause she had time. People used to talk so nice about that, Knot. Thought the world of it. Didn’t they, Pep?”

“Yes, they did,” Pep replied.

Knot dropped the egg back in the bowl and asked, “Ain’t I sittin’ here, visitin’ with ya’ll right now?” Knot was certain they’d both heard her question, although neither of them responded.

“Now folk say you show up to that schoolhouse smellin’ like you bathe in corn liquor,” Otis Lee went on. “That’s ’bout all they sayin’ ’bout you now.”

“What people you talkin’ ’bout, anyhow, Otis Lee?” Knot said. She took a sip of the coffee. It was weak.

“What you mean, ‘what people’?”

“Y’all ain’t got but three or four hundred folk ’round here,” Knot pointed out. “And most of ’em is white folk who don’t know me from a can of bacon grease.”

“Some days you talk like you don’t live right here in this town,” Pep remarked. Knot couldn’t think of anything to say back.

She knew that some if not all of what Otis Lee was saying was true—about people whispering. Many times Knot had noticed how some of the women stopped talking when she came near them at the general store. And at the schoolhouse, she’d been a bit hurt by how some of the people had seemed as if they didn’t want to be seen speaking with her too long when they came to pick up their children. They’d ask how their little ones were doing with their lessons and then hurry off as though Knot had a sickness they didn’t want to catch.

Knot did her job. As much as she hated it, she did it well. No one had complained about her teaching. They couldn’t. So many of the ma’s and pa’s had themselves thanked Knot for the little rhymes and games she’d taught their children to help them divide a number quickly—without using paper and pencil. Or the funny ways she’d taught them odd facts. She remembered asking one of the boys one day, “Sammy Spence, what’s the capital of Iowa?” And once he’d answered correctly, she’d asked, “How you remember to keep the s’s silent?” and Sammy had responded, “My name got s’s, and they both make the s sound. But not for Des Moines, Miss Centre!” And Knot had said, “So you were listening, weren’t you?” And she had rubbed his head. When Knot had first arrived in West Mills, there were some eight-year-olds who couldn’t write their names. Her pa would have been just beside himself about that if she ever told him.

Otis Lee was still lecturing.

“You ain’t gettin’ no younger,” he cautioned. “Pratt love you to death, gal.”

“He left,” Knot said. “I ain’t throw him out.”

“This time,” Pep remarked, and she walked to the basin. “You got somethin’ to say, Penelope?” Knot shot back before realizing that her question would only bring on the second part of the Loving lecture.

Just three months earlier, Pep reminded Knot, she had thrown Pratt out for trying to do something nice.

“All he wanted you to do was stay home from that ol’ juke joint for one Friday night,” Pep recalled.

“But I felt like going,” Knot grumbled.

“He cooked a chicken for ya, child,” Pep said. “This one”—she pointed at Otis Lee—“can’t even boil eggs.”

“I can too boil eggs, Pep,” Otis Lee said. “You know good’n well I—”

“If I come home to a cooked hen,” Pep continued, “I’m gon’ sit with my man and eat.”

“He ask her to read to him, too,” Otis Lee informed his wife. “She tell him, ‘No.’ ”

Pep looked at Knot with shame.

Knot couldn’t deny any of it. It had been his request that she stay home and read to him that irritated her most.

“I read to folks all goddamn week long,” Knot had said to Pratt. “You crazy if you think I’m stayin’ home to read to yo’ big ass.”

“Selfish and stubborn,” he’d called her, shaking his head. And Knot had said, “I’m twenty-six years old. I can be selfish if I feel like it.” And Pratt had said, “Naw, you can’t, neither.” And Knot had yelled back, “Well, get the hell on out my house! Right now! And don’t you come back to my door.” He was back at her door, in her house, and in her bed in less than a day.

Otis Lee’s four-year-old son, Breezy, came scooting down the stairs on his butt. His little face was mashed flat on one side and his hair was full of white lint. He looked as though he’d been working in the cotton fields Miss Noni had told Knot all about. Breezy went and stood between his parents. Pep rubbed his head and pulled him against her thigh.

“Say good morning to Miss Knot,” Otis Lee nudged. And the boy did. Knot was glad Breezy was there to draw some of the attention away from her. She was done picking at the egg and biscuit, and done being picked on.

“You hear anything we just say to you, Knot?” Otis Lee asked.

Knot wiped her hands on the damp rag that was on the table.

“I thank y’all kindly for the breakfast. I’ll be goin’ on home now.”

“Go on over there and make things right with Pratt,” Otis Lee demanded. “You hear me?” He was looking at her as though she were a daughter or a sister he couldn’t control. Knot looked at Pep, and Pep turned and went to the icebox.

“The hell I am,” Knot said.

“Ma!” Breezy exclaimed. “Knot say a cussword!”

“I’m Miss Knot, lil boy,” Knot corrected. She couldn’t resist giving the boy a quick tickle on the neck. And she realized that she might be missing her nephews back in Ahoskie. “If yo’ ma and pa don’t let up, I’m gon’ let you hear some more cusswords.”

On her way out, she heard Breezy say, “Pop, Miss Knot got our bowl!”

 

Knot finished eating the egg and biscuit when she got back to her house, while she read a chapter of The Old Curiosity Shop. It was her pa’s favorite book, by his favorite author. And because he had read those big books to her with such joy, Dickens had become her favorite, too. Her pa had read that book to her more than twenty times when she was a small child. He used to sit on the floor next to her bed two or three times a week and read. Sometimes Knot saw specks of his patients’ teeth and blood on his shirts. It would make her mother angry.

“I ain’t got time to worry ’bout keepin’ shirts pretty, Dinah,” her pa would say to her mother. “Them folk be in pain when they come to see me. Half the time, they already tried to snatch the teeth out theyself.”

Knot’s pa shared with her his love for reading, no matter how tired he was. And each time, Knot would hold on to his long, rough goatee so that she would know when he got up. As hard as she would fight sleep, it won the battle every time.

 

On the night of her birthday, Knot spent close to an hour looking at the only five dresses she had liked enough to bring with her from Ahoskie. She modeled each of them for the little mirror on the wall. She had to stand far away from it to see her whole body. And when she walked close to it, most of what she saw was her pa’s V-shaped jaw. He couldn’t deny being my pa even if he wanted to. How many people in Ahoskie got a jawbone like Dr. G. W. Centre?

Knot ruled out the black dress and the white one. The pink one with the white bow,  the green one with the blue trim,  or the plain yellow one had to be the winner. Finally she chose the yellow one. She liked the way it looked next to her skin. Pratt used to tell her it made him think of peanut butter and bananas—something he loved to have on Sunday mornings. The dress was over ten years old, but that worked in Knot’s favor. It showed whatever curves she had, which Pep claimed were starting to go missing.

When the sun went down, Knot dressed up and bundled up. She walked the short distance—less than a quarter mile—to the dead end of Antioch Lane, to Miss Goldie’s barn house juke joint, where Knot knew people would be throwing away the money they should have been saving to buy their Christmas hams if they didn’t have a hog of their own. But with the Depression just behind them, and war hovering, ain’t nothing wrong with folk havin’ a drink or two in the company of other folk who want to have one or two.

 

Going alone to Miss Goldie’s Place reminded Knot of her first few weeks in West Mills, and on Antioch Lane, back in ’36. How nice it was to not have a nagging man looking over her shoulder, counting her drinks, or running off the friendly men she had met since moving there to take the teaching job her pa had arranged for her.

When Knot pulled open the big heavy oak door and stepped inside, the first thing she looked for was Pratt sitting at the piano, playing his tunes. He was nowhere in sight. What am I lookin’ to see if he here for? It’s my birthday. She would have stayed either way.

It wasn’t long before the friendly men started asking Knot unfriendly questions: You done put Pratt down again, Knot? And: Knot, is it true you plum’ put a piece of glass to Pratt’s neck? To some of the questions, Knot declared, “That’s a damn lie!” To other questions she replied, “That ain’t none of yo’ goddamn business.”

Knot left their tables and found company with the few men who didn’t know her name yet. And there was one, a young one, standing at the end of the counter. He was tall, just the way Knot liked them. He just might be the tallest man I ever stood close to. Pratt had held the record for the tallest and the stockiest. But this fellow was tall and slim.

Valley, Knot’s buddy who poured drinks at Miss Goldie’s Place, told Knot he was too busy to help her court. If she wanted to know who the young fellow was, she had better go and ask him herself, Valley said.

“And if he don’t seem interested in you, s—”

“Send him over to you?” Knot finished, knowing Valley’s taste in men.

“Yes, ma’am,” he whispered, and smiled.

“You ain’t gon’ be satisfied ’til you put yo’ mark on every man west of the canal,” Knot said. She and Valley laughed. Then he reminded her, first, that he hadn’t had any luck thus far and, second, that she’d promised to make him one of her famous Antioch Lane bread puddings before he was to leave to go out of town again. “Don’t start in with me about that damn puddin’, Val. If I do make it, I want my dollar—just like everybody else gives me for it.”

“I always pay you,” Valley said. “I don’t know what ya talkin’ ’bout.”

“You want me to go home and get my ledger?” Knot countered. Valley smiled and rolled his eyes.

Miss Goldie was sitting about midway along the bar, wearing overalls and a man’s shirt. She was smoking a pipe. Unlike most pipes Knot had seen the people of West Mills puffing on, Miss Goldie’s didn’t look as though it had been carved out of wood by a five-year-old. It was a nice pipe. Probably ordered it from Europe or somewhere.

Next to Miss Goldie was Milton Guppy, sitting there glaring at Knot as he always did. Knot never understood how he had gotten such a strange last name. The glares, however, weren’t a mystery to her. The teaching job her pa had set up for her had belonged to a Mrs. Guppy. And when Mrs. Guppy had been dismissed, she also dismissed herself from her marriage, taking her and her husband’s four-year-old son with her. No one knew where the two of them had gone, since she was rumored to have had no family to speak of. The mean looks Mr. Guppy gave Knot whenever she saw him—sometimes Knot thought he was even growling—were enough to let her know he hadn’t gotten over it. She sympathized. But it wasn’t my fault! I ain’t make her run off.

After a few months of Guppy’s glares, Knot had walked up to him once, up-bridge at the general store, and said, “If you got somethin’ to say, go ’head and say it and get it over with. I probably done heard it from other folk, anyway.” And Guppy had said, “I don’t b’lee I will, Miss Centre. Don’t want to make ya late for yo’ teachin’. Wouldn’t dare keep the good teacher ’way from the good teachin’ job she come here and steal.” And Knot had said, “I’m gon’ tell you the same thing I tell everybody else who got a problem with me being up at that schoolhouse.” And after she did, she’d told him, “Now you can go to hell.” She had left the general store without the hard candy she had planned to buy for the children.

Tonight, at Miss Goldie’s Place, Knot gave Guppy a Don’t look at me stare. She could tell by the evil look on his face that he must have already lost his week’s pay at the dice table.

Miss Goldie looked irritable, studying Knot and Valley. Finally, she cleared her throat in a loud This is for y’all to hear way. Knot knew Miss Goldie was watching every move in the building, and she didn’t like it when her workers carried on long conversation when they should have been refilling jars and glasses and collecting nickels and dimes.

Knot finished her first drink—it was her third, if she counted the two she’d had at home—and she danced over to that young man at the end of the bar.

“Tell me one thing,” Knot said to him. He was standing there in a suit. Lord, the man wore the whole suit to the juke joint. Whether it was navy blue or black, Knot couldn’t be sure. “You think yo’ people know you snuck out they house yet?”

“Well, if I had snuck out,” he replied, standing straight and putting his hands in his pockets, “they wouldn’t be able to find me. I’m a long way from home.” He didn’t sound anything like she would expect from a man of his height. He sounded as if nature had gotten tired and quit working halfway through his change of voice when he was a growing boy.

“I figured that part out already,” Knot said. And it wasn’t just the sharp suit that had given it away. His haircut can’t be more’n a day old. And he got the nerve to have a part shaved there on the side. Menfolk in West Mills don’t wear parts in they heads. Knot said, “I hear the North on ya’ tongue. Where’s home?”

“Wilmington,” he answered. “Wilmington,  Delaware.

“I know where Wilmington is, thank you,” Knot retorted, and she wondered how she’d had all that schooling without learning there was more than one Wilmington—one other than in North Carolina.

She looked at him for as long as she could without feeling simpleminded. With teeth as straight and white as his, and with him not having a single razor bump on his chin, she was sure he wasn’t more than twenty years old.

“You can’t be more than nineteen, twenty,” Knot guessed aloud. He showed her a sly smile. I’ll be damned if he ain’t got dimples to go ’long with that grin. Shit, I don’t know if I ought to slap him or kiss him.

“People usually ask me what my name is by now,” he said.

Knot was about to tell him that she didn’t care what people usually wanted from him, but his eyebrows caught her attention. His eyebrows were so thick and neat against his smooth, black forehead, Knot wondered, If I stick the edge of a butter knife under the corner of one of ’em, would I be able to peel it off whole?

“Well, go ’head and tell me your name, then,” Knot said. He came closer to her, and she looked up at him.

“It’s William. And you guessed my age pretty close. I’m almost twen—”

“Buy me a drink, Delaware William. It’s my birthday.” Knot turned toward Valley and shouted, “Pour me what I like! This here fella’s gon’ give you the nickel.”

“William,” Delaware William corrected.

“Forgive me,” Knot said to him. And to Valley she said, “Delaware William’s gon’ give you the nickel.” When she looked back up at Delaware William, he was smiling again and shaking his head.

Valley came to the end of the bar where Knot was standing. With his finger, he signaled Knot to lean in. “Ain’t you got somewhere to be in the mornin’?”

“You ever hear tell of me not showing up?” Valley sucked his teeth. Knot said, “I didn’t think so. And I’ll thank you kindly to get me my drink. My damn birthday’ll be over, foolin’ with you.”

Valley fanned his bar rag at Knot. “You just as crazy as you can be, Knot Centre.”

“What was that he just called you?” Delaware William asked.

After Knot decided she wasn’t going answer him, she looked him up and down.

“My name’s Azalea.” And after he showed her a confused look, she said, “What’s ya business in West Mills, Delaware William?”

“I’m just William,” he said politely. “William Pe—” “What’s ya business here in West Mills, is what I asked,” Knot interrupted.

“We just stopped to rest. On our way back up from Georgia. Played some gigs down there for a few months.”

When she asked him to explain the we, he pointed to another young man who sat at a table with the pastor’s daughter. Knot was certain the girl had snuck out of the house. Without a doubt, it wouldn’t be long before the girl would give the young man what he wanted. Knot could tell by the way she was giggling. If the girl was anything like Knot was as a teenager, Knot knew how the night would end. And that young man would be leaving town soon after.

Knot, figuring she didn’t have more than a few hours with Delaware William, finished her drink in three swallows. Then she and Delaware William left, kissing and feeling on each other the whole walk back to her house. Between the heavy petting, she caught a few glimpses of the full moon. It was like an usher leading the way down an aisle.

“Looks like we’re in some damn slaves’ quarters or something,” Delaware William remarked. Knot couldn’t argue with him about that, even if she were sober. She had thought the same thing when she first moved to West Mills and rented the little house from a man named Pennington. According  to Otis Lee and Miss Noni, Riley Pennington—Otis Lee’s boss—was a descendant of the line of Penningtons who had once owned the whole town, which, in those days, had been called Pennington, North Carolina. It didn’t change names until a man from Maine named Leland Edgars Sr. and his two sons—Miss Noni said they were both tall and handsome with long, pitch-black ponytails—moved to town with a bunch of Northern money. They bought up a bunch of land with trees and opened a mill on the west side of the canal, causing people to refer to the whole town as West Mills. And now, aside from the one large farm, the Penningtons owned only an acre here and an acre there.

“Used to be,” Knot said, and that was all she felt like telling him. “Now that you got ya history lesson, shut up and kiss me some more.”

When they arrived in front of her house, that same moonlight that had led them there showed her that Pratt Shepherd was sitting on her porch. He sat there as though he had been one of the first Penningtons.

“Young fella,” Pratt called out, “best if you turn around. Head on back up the lane so I can talk to Knot.”

Delaware William had his arm around Knot’s shoulder, and she felt it slide away. Knot leaned into him—she might have fallen over otherwise.

“Well, sir,” Delaware William said, “I didn’t hear her say she wants to talk to—”

“I used to know a boy that look something like you,” Pratt cut in. He stood to his feet. “Got his face cut up for walkin’ another man’s wife home. They cut that fella’s face up real bad. Right here on this lane.”

Knot didn’t get a chance to tell Delaware William that Pratt was no one to be afraid of; he had turned around and hightailed it back down the lane toward Miss Goldie’s Place. When Knot turned back around to face Pratt, he was sitting again.

“I’m gon’ count to ten . . . or eleven,” she slurred, steadying herself in front of the porch and placing her hands on her hips. “When I get through countin’, you best be off my damn porch or I’m gon’ have to hurt ya.”

“What? You got a gun, or somethin’?” Pratt taunted.

“Did you hear me say I got a gun?” Knot shot back. “I might, though.”

“Sit down, Knot. Sit on down here ’fore you fall and crack that lil head of your’n?” He patted the porch two times.

Knot spit on the ground and said, “My new man’ll come back and crack yo’ head open to the white meat.”

“Who?” Pratt asked. “The one that just run off? He ain’t even stay long enough for me to tighten my fist.”

Knot turned and looked down the lane. Delaware William may as well have been a ghost. Pratt, she discovered when she turned to him once more, looked as though he would die if he held his laugh in any longer. And once he let the laugh go—he slapped his knees, too—Knot said, “Go to hell, Pratt.”

She sat on the porch next to him and their shoulders touched.

“Happy Birthday, darlin’.” He leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. She swatted him away, but she was so glad he was there; something was stirring around inside her and she was in the mood for a man’s company.

Pratt pulled her close to him. She liked the way her ear felt against his fleshy chest. A whiff of his clean breath relaxed her. Pratt’s breath smelled as though he had chewed on mint leaves all day instead of just after dinner, as he usually did. Knot figured she would let him kiss her, knowing he’d happily join her inside the house, where he would make her feel good under the quilt. Hell, it’s my birthday.

In the doorway, Pratt kissed her face and neck. And before she knew it, they were on the bed they had been sharing, off and on, for two years. She didn’t know what it was, but it seemed as though his touch was different, better than before. “Feel like you grew some more hands,” she whispered in his ear before softly biting his earlobe. Did he put butter on his lips? She had never known his lips to feel as soft as they felt tonight. She enjoyed their new softness even more when Pratt kissed the insides of her thighs and moved up to her shiver spot.

Pratt laid his large body on top of hers. She imagined a giant pillow. As big—with just the right amount of heavy—as he was, that night he was a nice cloud hovering over her, making love to her. Knot knew she would certainly be hoarse in the morning.

Lord, have mercy.

When they were done, Knot lay there wishing Pratt would fall asleep so she could have one more drink. That jar is whistlin’ for me. But after all Pratt had just done for her, she didn’t want to spoil it.

The Dickens book was on the floor next to her headboard, so she decided to read for as long as her eyes would allow. But it sure would be nice to have a cool glass with a splash in it while I read. Damn! Pratt was wide-awake on the other side of the bed, picking with his toenails.

The next morning when Knot woke up, she lay there thinking about how she hadn’t gotten to do what she had wanted—in my own house. She nudged Pratt until he was awake.

“What is it?” he mumbled. He had one eye open, one eye shut.

“Get up!” Knot exclaimed.

“What for?”

“Get up and get the hell on outta my house.” And after he was dressed and about to walk out, she said, “And don’t darken my doorway. Never no mo’.”

“Azalea!”

“Gone!” she yelled, before slamming the door and making the drink she had wanted the night before.

 

Excerpted from In West Mills by De’Shawn Charles Winslow. Copyright © 2019 by De’Shawn Charles Winslow. 

(Photo: Julie R. Keresztes)
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The Travelers
Regina Porter

Bessie Coleman was the first woman Eloise Delaney loved—before she knew love meant anything. There is a rectangular photograph cropped from the Buckner County Register, a local Negro paper, of Coleman standing atop the left tire of her Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplane. Her gloved right hand hugs the cockpit. She is decked out in tailored aviation gear and stares directly into the camera. The photograph is at least thirty years old and dates back to 1926, the year of the brown aviatrix’s untimely death, but for Eloise’s parents the crash might have happened yesterday. They were the town drunks and time played on them murky.

“Man wasn’t meant to have wings,” Herbert Delaney said.

“Wasn’t that a play or something?” Delores Delaney snapped her fingers. “All God’s Chillun Got Wings”?

Herbert shrugged. “She getting ahead of herself. Wanting to take flight.”

“What you saying, Herbert?” Delores Delaney kissed her husband’s long thin hands. “You saying God wanted her plane to crash? God wanted Bessie to die?”

“Well, He sure as hell didn’t want her to live. Otherwise, that damn plane wouldn’t have malfunctioned.”

 

Bessie Coleman’s plane had crashed during a barnstorming exhibition in Orlando, Florida. Delores Delaney liked to brag that she stood right smack-dab in the middle of the crowd the morning “Brave Bessie” was catapulted two thousand feet to the ground, but Eloise knew better than to place stock in anything a drunk said, especially when that drunk was her mother.

Nevertheless, Eloise would remember these rare evenings from her childhood when she sat at the kitchen table on a broken stool between her mother and father and the three of them peered down together at the newspaper clipping and she did not have to vie for their attention with beer, bourbon, scotch, or gin.

Eloise’s parents worked at the seafood-processing factory two miles out of town. They had grown up shucking oysters and picking crabs and gutting fish. Getting paid for doing something that was second nature to them was like being given money to go on vacation. They could pick crabs with their eyes shut and lose nothing in speed. Sometimes their anxious fingers moved in their sleep, discarding the dead man and the pregnant she-crab belly and flicking out the tender white meat. Every so often, the manager of the seafood factory was forced to make an example of Herbert and Delores for coming to work inebriated or late or not at all. He would let them sweat their imbibing out and Eloise would go hungry until they managed to sidle back through the factory door.

The seafood factory was situated in a warehouse overlooking a salt marsh. When the picking season was high, Herbert and Delores would take their daughter to work with them. She would peer out the tall windows at the herons and seagulls and pelicans and ospreys and charcoal-black cormorants scouring the marsh for feed.

 

Excerpted from The Travelers by Regina Porter. Copyright © 2019 by Regina Porter. Published by Hogarth Books.

(Photo: Liz Lazarus)

First Fiction 2018

by

Staff

6.13.18

For our eighteenth annual roundup of the summer’s best debut fiction, we asked five established authors to introduce this year’s group of debut writers. Read the July/August 2018 issue of the magazine for interviews between R. O. Kwon and Celeste Ng, Fatima Farheen Mirza and Garth Greenwell, Jamel Brinkley and Danielle Evans, Katharine Dion and Adam Haslett, and Tommy Orange and Claire Vaye Watkins. But first, check out these exclusive readings and excerpts from their debut novels.

The Incendiaries (Riverhead, July) by R. O. Kwon
A Place for Us (SJP for Hogarth, June) by Fatima Farheen Mirza
A Lucky Man (Graywolf Press, May) by Jamel Brinkley
The Dependents (Little, Brown, June) by Katharine Dion
There There (Knopf, June) by Tommy Orange

The Incendiaries
by R. O. Kwon 
 

It was past the time the march should have begun, and people were losing patience. I’ll give it five minutes, then I’m calling it quits, a man said. Placards leaned against a building wall. I saw John Leal talking to people I didn’t recognize. With a nod, he stepped on an upended crate. His mouth moved. In that hubbub, I couldn’t pick out his words. Phoebe apologized again, tearful. It’s all right, I said, but she had more she wanted to explain. It’s fine, I said. Hoping she’d calm down, I kissed Phoebe’s head. I was intent on listening to John Leal’s speech: I was curious what his effect would be with this large an audience, if they’d respond as we did. He lifted his head, pitching his voice.

. . . hands splashed with blood, he said. We’re all here this Saturday morning, and I know I don’t need to tell you the truth that an unborn child has a heartbeat before it’s a month old. I don’t have to tell you that, within the first three months of fetal life, a human infant’s strong enough to grip a hand. But I’m not sure if it’s done much good, all this truth. What point it’s had, if you and I aren’t saving lives.
 

Excepted from The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon. Reprinted by permission of Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2018 by R. O. Kwon.

(Photo: Smeeta Mahanti)

A Place for Us
by Fatima Farheen Mirza 

Amar was the one they loved the most. He was the one whose picture Mumma kept in her wallet behind her license. Him smiling with a toothless grin. Mumma ran her fingers through his hair as if it nourished her. A painting he did of a boat on the ocean was tacked above Baba’s office desk when she visited him at work. Once Hadia spent an entire afternoon counting the faces in the framed pictures, and Amar had beaten them all by seven. Hadia and Huda were a two-for-one deal: if there was a framed picture of them, they were likely together. Mumma served food for Amar first, and then Baba, and she always asked Amar if he wanted seconds. She was not even aware of doing it. Hadia’s daily chore was washing the dishes and Huda’s was sweeping. If Amar was asked to help, the two of them would shout and cheer to mark the day. Sometimes this made Hadia so angry that if she was left in charge of the cleaning while Mumma and Baba were out, she would delegate everything to Amar. He was the only one Mumma had a nickname for. His favorite ice cream flavor was always stocked in the fridge; if Hadia helped unload the groceries and saw a pistachio and almond carton, she reminded Baba that Amar was the only one of them who ate that flavor.

“You don’t love it too?” Baba would ask her distractedly, every time.

“No,” she’d say quietly, thinking there was no point in correcting him at all.

Once, only once, had she confronted her mother about this, after her mother had taken his side during a fight that he was clearly to blame for.

“You love him more,” she had shouted. “You love him more than all of us.”

“Don’t be silly.” Her mother was calm, as if she was bored by Hadia’s tantrum. “You think about him more. What he needs and what he wants.” Hadia had turned to run back into her room. “We worry about him more,” her mother had called after her, so gently that Hadia had wanted to believe her. “We don’t have to worry about you.”

She had sniffled, and locked her bedroom door, embarrassed by her outburst. She plotted to do something that would make her parents worry about her, as if their worry would prove the depth of their love. But she was afraid. They had endless patience for Amar’s antics. She feared the only thing worse than wondering if they loved him more was testing their patience, proving it to be thin, and knowing for certain.

They loved Hadia because she did well. Her grades were good and her teachers said kind things about her. She was not sure if Baba would even notice her at all, if she did not work hard to distinguish herself academically. The only compliment Mumma ever gave her was that when Hadia cleaned the stove, it always sparkled.

“Even I can’t clean like that,” Mumma would say. And there would be actual awe in her voice, and Hadia would never know if she should feel glad for the compliment, or annoyed that it was the only thing that Mumma valued enough to note.

Amar was their son. Even the word son felt like something shiny and golden to her, like the actual sun that reigned over their days.

Baba would sometimes say to Hadia, “One day you’ll live with your husband. You’ll care for his parents. You’ll forget about us.”

It was meant as a joke, “you’ll forget about us,” or “we will no longer be responsible for you.” But it was never funny.

“Amar will take care of us, right, Ami?” Mumma would squeeze his cheeks. Amar would nod.

“Why can’t I?” she would say.

“Because the role of the daughter is to go off, to make her own home, to take her husband’s name—daughters are never really ours,” Baba would tell her.

But I want to be yours, she’d want to say. I want to be yours or just my own.

“I won’t take anyone’s name,” she’d vow aloud, but he would have stopped listening.

Everyone important was a boy. The Prophets and the Imams had been men. The moulana was always a man. Jonah got to be swallowed by the whale. Joseph was given the colorful coat and the powerful dreams. Noah knew the flood was coming. Whereas Noah’s wife was silly and drowned. Eve was the first to reach for the fruit. But Hadia liked to keep her examples close. It was Moses’s sister who had the clever idea to put him in the basket, and the Pharaoh’s wife who had the heart to pull him from the river. It was Bibi Mariam who was given the miracle of Jesus. Bibi Fatima was the only child the Prophet had and the Prophet never lamented the lack of a son. And she liked to think that there was a reason that one of the first things the Prophet ever did was forbid the people of Quraysh from burying their newborn daughters alive. But still, hundreds and hundreds of years had passed, and it was still the son they cherished, the son their pride depended on, the son who would carry their name into the next generation.

Excerpted from A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza. Copyright © 2018 by Fatima Farheen Mirza. All rights reserved. Published in the United States by SJP for Hogarth, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

(Photo: Gregg Richards)

 

A Lucky Man
by Jamel Brinkley 

James kept busy at the security desk now, doing the work of both men while Lincoln sat there with his stomach on his lap. He felt a sort of bond with James now, a familiar gratitude. But one gets sick and tired of saying thank you. When he was engaged to Alexis, and during their first years of marriage, his friends would also tell him how lucky he was, but this was said as a joke. Lincoln would say thank you and agree, would tell them how grateful he was for her, but this wasn’t true. He deserved her—this was what he believed, and he knew this was what his friends believed in. A man of a kind should get what he deserves, and if a man like him couldn’t get a woman like her, then something was terribly wrong with the world.

James snipped withered leaves from the spider plants, a thing he’d never done before. Do her friends tell her she’s lucky? Lincoln wondered. Has Donna said that to her? Has her mother told her to give thanks for her man? She might be saying it now as they picked plums and nectarines at the fruit market, or sat out on the porch shelling peas. Surely this was foolish thinking, just as foolish as thinking Tameka would spend these years breaking the hearts of any eager Georgetown boy who wasn’t like her father. Lincoln came to understand that this had always been part of his vision for himself, to have children who adored him—a son who resembled and worshipped him, a daughter for whom no other man would ever measure up. This was part of what he couldn’t see before he married. But there was no son, and the years of Tameka’s life had marked his decline.

She had grown up watching it. His professional gambles with the boxing gyms, and the attempts at training and managing, had failed. His charm and stature no longer earned him opportunities, and in New York he had no reputation. He was lucky, he knew, to have his job at Tilden, steady and respectable work, but years ago he and his wife had deserved each other. Time had not treated them equally. Why did he expect otherwise though? With any two people one would get the brunt of it, and time had hit him worse than any beating he’d ever seen in the ring. He felt it had brutalized him. What did his wife think? Alexis had always been kind and supportive, but in her privacy she had to keep thoughts. A long marriage forced you to witness or suffer such brutality. Lincoln wondered, not for the first time, if this was exactly what marriage meant.

Across from the front desk, James pulled the director of security aside. Lincoln couldn’t hear what they were saying, but the discussion had the look of seriousness. He approached, but the director stopped him short with a flat stony hand, which he closed into a fist before lowering. Lincoln went back to his chair.

One day his wife’s looks would go. Creases would line her face, the skin there would loosen and thin, pouches would form under her eyes, maybe little dewlaps like his under the jaw. And her mind, it would start to slip and show weakness too. Everything cracks eventually. But when? How long would it be his good fortune to have her? How long until he could just plain have her again? Her smooth face. Even after all these years he longed for it, to rub his cheek against hers and breathe hot words into her hair—there’d been no diminishment of that feeling. He still had those appetites, and she did too. Yet he also felt the urge to press the sharps of his teeth against her face, to bite down and place the first deep crack in it. When pulled by contrary desires, you often don’t do anything at all. So on evenings and weekends he’d sit at home like a chastened boy, captive to her every small gesture. He didn’t want to lose her.

But Lincoln was a man with luck—yes, he still had it, James had said so and he was right. Good fortune can change in an instant, however, or it might never, but whatever it does has nothing to do with you. For years it had persisted in following him. It went home from work with him, lived with his family, claimed a space between him and his wife in their bed. She still had her light, but his was his luck. If it left him, she would too. No one would blame her. Neither Donna nor her other girlfriends, nor her mother, nor their daughter. Nor James. Maybe James had been wrong earlier. Maybe Lincoln’s luck had already abandoned him—his wife was gone for now, after all. Or maybe Lincoln was the one with wrong notions—maybe, slumped in his chair at the desk, unable to muster the little strength it took to hold in his belly, it was his luck that he was alone with.

Excerpted from A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley. Copyright © 2018 by Jamel Brinkley. Reprinted by permission of Graywolf Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

 

(Photo: Arash Saedinia)

The Dependents
by Katharine Dion

His early forays on the internet had been limited to responding to the emails his daughter sent him and occasionally reading the sensationalistic but nevertheless impossible-to-ignore news stories that appeared on his home page. (He wondered if this was something Dary could tell from the settings—that he clicked on articles such as “Nude Man Accidentally Tasers Self” or “Beano Bandit Apprehended.”) When Dary realized how little  he was using the computer she tried to help him, but the only thing that really stuck with him from her tutorials was this idea that you could ask the internet a question, any question, and it would give you not just one answer but dozens. He found this oddly reassuring because it suggested that somewhere on the other side of the internet connection, back in the human realm, somebody—and possibly a lot of somebodies—had the same semiprivate question that was more comfortable to send through a filtering layer of inhuman data.

Now he typed into the oracle field: “How to write a eulogy.” It was nice, or at least nonjudgmental, he supposed, that the internet assumed nothing about your existing abilities. Maybe you were a human willing to exert some effort, or maybe you were a half-automaton who needed to pass himself off as acceptably human. If he hadn’t wanted to write the eulogy there were plentiful options: premade templates, preselected themes, inspirational quotations, mournful yet triumphant poems. He was looking for something else, something that wouldn’t give him the shape of the thought, but that would tell him how to begin a process of thinking about the unthinkable.

He opened the top drawer of Maida’s dresser. She had never bothered to match up her socks, mixing them loose among her underwear and bras, and her pantyhose often ended up stretched beyond use or tangled in a knot. How many times had she and Gene been late for some event because on the way she had made him stop at the drugstore to buy a new pair? She would wriggle into it standing beside the car right there in the parking lot, while Gene would lower himself in the front seat, hoping nobody they knew saw them. When she was alive her tendency to make them late had never ceased to frustrate him, but now he looked upon her disorganization with peculiar fondness. Suddenly everything that was hers—the coins that had once been in her pocket, the hour and minute she had last set her alarm—was overburdened with significance. In some mad inversion of time, grieving his wife’s death resembled falling in love.

The most reasonable site he found had been created by an entity who called herself “the Lady in Black.” She said that writing a eulogy was “a personal journey of gathering memories.” She suggested collecting personal items that belonged to the deceased, and “spending time with them until they speak to you—not literally, of course!” Following the Lady in Black’s suggestion, he got up from the computer and went upstairs to the bedroom to find these items.

Excerpted from The Dependents by Katharine Dion. Copyright © 2018 by Katharine Dion. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.

(Photo: Terri Loewenthal)
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There There
by Tommy Orange

Blood is messy when it comes out. Inside it runs clean and looks blue in tubes that line our bodies, that split and branch like earth’s river systems. Blood is ninety percent water. And like water it must move. Blood must flow, never stray or split or clot or divide—lose any essential amount of itself while it distributes evenly through our bodies. But blood is messy when it comes out. It dries, divides, and cracks in the air.

Native blood quantum was introduced in 1705 at the Virginia Colony. If you were at least half Native, you didn’t have the same rights as white people. Blood quantum and tribal membership qualifications have since been turned over to individual tribes to decide.

In the late 1990s, Saddam Hussein commissioned a Quran to be written in his own blood. Now Muslim leaders aren’t sure what to do with it. To have written the Quran in blood was a sin, but to destroy it would also be a sin.

The wound that was made when white people came and took all that they took has never healed. An unattended wound gets infected. Becomes a new kind of wound like the history of what actually happened became a new kind history. All these stories that we haven’t been telling all this time, that we haven’t been listening to, are just part of what we need to heal. Not that we’re broken. And don’t make the mistake of calling us resilient. To not have been destroyed, to not have given up, to have survived, is no badge of honor. Would you call an attempted murder victim resilient?

When we go to tell our stories, people think we want it to have gone different. People want to say things like “sore losers” and “move on already,” “quit playing the blame game.” But is it a game? Only those who have lost as much as we have see the particularly nasty slice of smile on someone who thinks they’re winning when they say “Get over it.” This is the thing: If you have the option to not think about or even consider history, whether you learned it right or not, or whether it even deserves consideration, that’s how you know you’re on board the ship that serves hors d’oeuvres and fluffs your pillows, while others are out at sea, swimming or drowning, or clinging to little inflatable rafts that they have to take turns keeping inflated, people short of breath, who’ve never even heard of the words hors d’oeuvres or fluff. Then someone from up on the yacht says, “It’s too bad those people down there are lazy, and not as smart and able as we are up here, we who have built these strong, large, stylish boats ourselves, we who float the seven seas like kings.” And then someone else on board says something like, “But your father gave you this yacht, and these are his servants who brought the hors d’oeuvres.” At which point that person gets tossed over­board by a group of hired thugs who’d been hired by the father who owned the yacht, hired for the express purpose of removing any and all agitators on the yacht to keep them from making unnecessary waves, or even referencing the father or the yacht itself. Meanwhile, the man thrown overboard begs for his life, and the people on the small inflatable rafts can’t get to him soon enough, or they don’t even try, and the yacht’s speed and weight cause an undertow. Then in whispers, while the agita­tor gets sucked under the yacht, private agreements are made, precautions are measured out, and everyone quietly agrees to keep on quietly agreeing to the implied rule of law and to not think about what just happened. Soon, the father, who put these things in place, is only spoken of in the form of lore, stories told to children at night, under the stars, at which point there are suddenly several fathers, noble, wise forefathers. And the boat sails on unfettered.

Excerpted from There There by Tommy Orange. Copyright © 2018 by Tommy Orange. Reprinted by permission of Knopf. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

(Photo: Elena Seibert)

First Fiction 2017

by

Danzy Senna, Mira Jacob, Maggie Nelson, Emily Raboteau, Gary Shteyngart

6.14.17

For our seventeenth annual roundup of the summer’s best debut fiction, we asked five established authors to introduce this year’s group of debut writers. Read the July/August 2017 issue of the magazine for interviews between Zinzi Clemmons and Danzy Senna, Hala Alyan and Mira Jacob, Jess Arndt and Maggie Nelson, Lisa Ko and Emily Raboteau, and Diksha Basu and Gary Shteyngart. But first, check out these exclusive readings and excerpts from their debut novels.

What We Lose (Viking, July) by Zinzi Clemmons
Salt Houses (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May) by Hala Alyan
Large Animals (Catapult, May) by Jess Arndt
The Leavers (Algonquin Books, May) by Lisa Ko
The Windfall (Crown, June) by Diksha Basu
 

What We Lose
by Zinzi Clemmons

My parents’ bedroom is arranged exactly the same as it always was. The big mahogany dresser sits opposite the bed, the doily still in place on the vanity. My mother’s little ring holders and perfume bottles still stand there. On top of all these old feminine relics, my father has set up his home office. His old IBM laptop sits atop the doily, a tangle of cords choking my mother’s silver makeup tray. His books are scattered around the tables, his clothes draped carelessly over the antique wing chair that my mother found on a trip to Quebec.

In the kitchen, my father switches on a small flat-screen TV that he’s installed on the wall opposite the stove. My mother never allowed TV in the kitchen, to encourage bonding during family dinners and focus during homework time. As a matter of fact, we never had more than one television while I was growing up—an old wood-paneled set that lived in the cold basement, carefully hidden from me and visitors in the main living areas of the house.

We order Chinese from the place around the corner, the same order that we’ve made for years: sesame chicken, vegetable fried rice, shrimp lo mein. As soon as they hear my father’s voice on the line, they put in the order; he doesn’t even have to ask for it. When he picks the order up, they ask after me. When my mother died, they started giving us extra sodas with our order, and he returns with two cans of pineapple soda, my favorite.

My father tells me that he’s been organizing at work, now that he’s the only black faculty member in the upper ranks of the administration.

I notice that he has started cutting his hair differently. It is shorter on the sides and disappearing in patches around the crown of his skull. He pulls himself up in his chair with noticeable effort. He had barely aged in the past twenty years, and suddenly, in the past year, he has inched closer to looking like his father, a stooped, lean, yellow-skinned man I’ve only seen in pictures.

“How have you been, Dad?” I say as we sit at the table.

The thought of losing my father lurks constantly in my mind now, shadowy, inexpressible, but bursting to the surface when, like now, I perceive the limits of his body. Something catches in my throat and I clench my jaw.

My father says that he has been keeping busy. He has been volunteering every month at the community garden on Christian Street, turning compost and watering kale.

“And I’m starting a petition to hire another black professor,” he says, stabbing his glazed chicken with a fire I haven’t seen in him in years.

He asks about Peter.

“I’m glad you’ve found someone you like,” he says.

“Love, Dad,” I say. “We’re in love.”

He pauses, stirring his noodles quizzically with his fork. “Why aren’t you eating?” he asks.

I stare at the food in front of me. It’s the closest thing to comfort food since my mother has been gone. The unique flavor of her curries and stews buried, forever, with her. The sight of the food appeals to me, but the smell, suddenly, is noxious; the wisp of steam emanating from it, scorching.

“Are you all right?”

All of a sudden, I have the feeling that I am sinking. I feel the pressure of my skin holding in my organs and blood vessels and fluids; the tickle of every hair that covers it. The feeling is so disorienting and overwhelming that I can no longer hold my head up. I push my dinner away from me. I walk calmly but quickly to the powder room, lift the toilet seat, and throw up.

From What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons, published in July by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Zinzi Clemmons.

(Photo: Nina Subin)

Salt Houses
by Hala Alyan

On the street, she fumbles for a cigarette from her purse and smokes as she walks into the evening. She feels a sudden urge, now that she is outside the apartment, to clear her head. This is her favor­ite thing about the city—the ability it gives you to walk, to literally put space between your body and distress. In Kuwait, nobody walks anywhere.

Mimi lives in a quiet part of the city, mostly residential, with small, pretty apartments, each window like a glistening eye. The streetlamps are made of wrought iron, designs flanking either side of the bulbs. There is a minimalist sense of wealth in the neighborhood, children dressed simply, the women always adjusting scarves around their necks, their hair cut into perfectly symmetrical lines. Souad walks by the manicured lawns of a grammar school, empty and discarded for the summer. Next to it a gray-steepled church. She tries to imagine that, elsewhere, there is smoke and destroyed palaces and men carry­ing guns. It seems impossible.

The night is cool, and Souad wraps her cardigan tightly around her, crosses her arms. A shiver runs through her. She is nervous to see him, a familiar thrill that he always elicits in her. Even before last night.

Le Chat Rouge is a fifteen-minute walk from Mimi’s apartment, but within several blocks the streets begin to change, brownstones and Gothic-style latticework replaced with grungier alleyways, young Algerian men with long hair sitting on steps and drinking beer from cans. One eyes her and calls out, caressingly, something in French. She can make out the words for sweet and return. Bars line the streets with their neon signs and she walks directly across the Quartier Latin courtyard, her shoes clicking on the cobblestones.

“My mother’s going to call tomorrow,” she told Elie yesterday. She wasn’t sure why she said it, but it felt necessary. “They’re taking me to Amman.” In the near dark, Elie’s face was peculiarly lit, the sign making his skin look alien.

“You could stay here,” Elie said. He smiled mockingly. “You could get married.”

Souad had blinked, her lips still wet from the kiss. “Married?” She wasn’t being coy—she truthfully had no idea what Elie meant. Mar­ried to whom? For a long, awful moment, she thought Elie was sug­gesting she marry one of the other Lebanese men, that he was fob­bing her off on a friend in pity.

“Yes.” Elie cocked his head, as though gauging the authenticity of her confusion. He smiled again, kinder this time. He closed his fingers around hers so that she was making a fist and he a larger one atop it. They both watched their hands silently for a few seconds, an awkward pose, more confrontational than romantic, as though he were preventing her from delivering a blow. It occurred to her that he was having a difficult time speaking. She felt her palm itch but didn’t move. Elie cleared his throat, and when he spoke, she had to lean in to hear him.

“You could marry me.”

Now, even in re-creating that moment, Souad feels the swoop in her stomach, her mouth drying. It is a thing she wants in the dark­est, most furtive way, not realizing how badly until it was said aloud. Eighteen years old, a voice within her spoke, eighteen. Too young, too young. And her parents, her waiting life.

But the greater, arrogant part of Souad’s self growled as if wo­ken. Her steps clacked with her want of it. The self swelled trium­phantly—Shame, shame, she admonishes herself, thinking of the war, the invasion, the troops and fire, but she is delighted nonetheless.

From Salt Houses by Hala Alyan. Copyright © 2017 by Hala Alyan. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

(Photo: Beowulf Sheehan)

Large Animals
by Jess Arndt

In my sleep I was plagued by large animals—teams of grizzlies, timber wolves, gorillas even came in and out of the mist. Once the now extinct northern white rhino also stopped by. But none of them came as often or with such a ferocious sexual charge as what I, mangling Latin and English as usual, called the Walri. Lying there, I faced them as you would the inevitable. They were massive, tube-shaped, sometimes the feeling was only flesh and I couldn’t see the top of the cylinder that masqueraded as a head or tusks or eyes. Nonetheless I knew I was in their presence intuitively. There was no mistaking their skin; their smell was unmistakable too, as was their awful weight.

During these nights (the days seemed to disappear before they even started) I was living two miles from a military testing site. In the early morning and throughout the day the soft, dense sound of bombs filled the valley. It was comforting somehow. Otherwise I was entirely alone.

This seemed a precondition for the Walri—that I should be theirs and theirs only. on the rare occasion that I had an overnight visitor to my desert bungalow the Walri were never around. Then the bears would return in force, maybe even a large local animal like a mountain lion or goat, but no form’s density came close to walrusness. So I became wary and stopped inviting anyone out to visit at all.

The days, unmemorable, had a kind of habitual slide. I would wake up with the sun and begin cleaning the house. No matter how tightly I’d kept the doors shut the day before, dust and sand and even large pieces of mineral rock seemed to shove  their way inside. I swept these into piles. Then the dishes that I barely remembered dirtying—some mornings it was as if the whole artillery of pots and pans had been used in the night by someone else—then the trash (again always full), then some coffee. Eight o’clock.

This work done, I sat in various chairs in the house following the bright but pale blades of light. I was drying out. oh, an LA friend said somewhat knowingly, from the booze? But I had alcohol with me, plenty of it. It wasn’t that. I moved as if preprogrammed. only later did I realize that my sleep was so soggy that it took strong desert sun to unshrivel me and since it was the middle of winter and the beams were perforce slanted, I’d take all of it I could find.

For lunch I got in my car and drove into town, to the empty parking lot of Las Palmas. There were many Mexican joints along the highway that also functioned as Main Street. I hadn’t bothered to try them out. Las Palmas, with its vacant booths, dusty cacti, and combination platter lunch special for $11.99 including $4 house margarita, was fine.

A waitress named Tamara worked there. She seemed like the only one. She wasn’t my type—so tall she bent over herself and a bona fide chain-smoker. Sometimes to order you’d have to exit your booth and find her puffing outside. A friend who had borrowed the bungalow before I did told me about Tamara and so if I had a crush at all it was an inherited one that even came with inherited guilt—from having taken her on once he could no longer visit her. Regardless, we barely spoke.

I had things I was supposed to be doing, more work than I could accomplish even if I
duct-taped my fists to my laptop, but none of it seemed relevant to my current state. In the afternoons I drove back home slowly, always stopping for six-packs of beer at the Circle K. I enjoyed the task. The beer evaporated once I stuck it in my fridge—it was there and then, it was gone.

My sleeping area was simple: a bed on a plywood platform. A wooden dresser. Built-in closets and a cement floor. At first  I would wake up in the night from the sheer flattening silence of the desert. It was impossible that the world still existed elsewhere. After that initial jolt, relief.

Don’t you miss it? my same friend said during our weekly telephone chats. But I couldn’t explain the euphoria of walking up and down the chilly aisles of Stater Bros. In week-old sweatpants if I wanted, uncounted by life. Would I buy refried or whole beans? This brand or that? It didn’t matter, no one cared.

It was in these conditions that the Walri arrived.

* * * 

I’d slept as usual for the first few hours, heavily, in a kind of coma state. Then had woken, I thought to pee. But lying there with the gritty sheets braided around me, the violet light that was created from the fly zapper, the desert cold that was entering through the gaps and cracks in the fire’s absence—I felt a new form of suffocation.

It wasn’t supernatural. I’d also had that. The sense of someone’s vast weight sitting on the bed with you or patting your body with ghostly hands. This breathless feeling was larger, as if I was uniformly surrounded by mammoth flesh.

Dream parts snagged at me. Slapping sounds and hose-like alien respiration. I felt I was wrestling within inches of what must be—since I couldn’t breathe—the end of my life. Now the lens of my dream panned backward and I saw my opponent in his entirety.

He lay (if that’s what you could call it) on my bed, thick and wrinkled, the creases in his hide so deep I could stick my arms between them. His teeth were yellow and as long as my legs.

“I’m sexually dormant,” I said aloud to him. “But I want to put my balls in someone’s face.”

Then somehow light was peeling everything back for dawn.

From Large Animals. Used with permission of Catapult. Copyright 2017 by Jess Arndt.

(Photo: Johanna Breiding)

The Leavers
by Lisa Ko

The day before Deming Guo saw his mother for the last time, she surprised him at school. A navy blue hat sat low on her forehead, scarf around her neck like a big brown snake. “What are you waiting for, Kid? It’s cold out.”

He stood in the doorway of P.S. 33 as she zipped his coat so hard the collar pinched. “Did you get off work early?” It was four thirty, already dark, but she didn’t usually leave the nail salon until six.

They spoke, as always, in Fuzhounese. “Short shift. Michael said you had to stay late to get help on an assignment.” Her eyes narrowed behind her glasses, and he couldn’t tell if she bought it or not. Teachers didn’t call your mom when you got detention, only gave a form you had to return with a signature, which he forged. Michael, who never got detention, had left after eighth period, and Deming wanted to get back home with him, in front of the television, where, in the safety of a laugh track, he didn’t have to worry about letting anyone down.

Snow fell like clots of wet laundry. Deming and his mother walked up Jerome Avenue. In the back of a concrete courtyard three older boys were passing a blunt, coats unzipped, wearing neither backpacks nor hats, sweet smoke and slow laughter warming the thin February air. “I don’t want you to be like that,” she said. “I don’t want you to be like me. I didn’t even finish eighth grade.”

What a sweet idea, not finishing eighth grade. He could barely finish fifth. His teachers said it was an issue of focus, of not applying himself. Yet when he tripped Travis Bhopa in math class Deming had been as shocked as Travis was. “I’ll come to your school tomorrow,” his mother said, “talk to your teacher about that assignment.” He kept his arm against his mother’s, loved the scratchy sound of their jackets rubbing together. She wasn’t one of those TV moms, always hugging their kids or watching them with bemused smiles, but insisted on holding his hand when they crossed a busy street. Inside her gloves her hands were red and scraped, the skin angry and peeling, and every night before she went to sleep she rubbed a thick lotion onto her fingers and winced. Once he asked if it made them hurt less. She said only for a little while, and he wished there was a special lotion that could make new skin grow, a pair of superpower gloves.

Short and blocky, she wore loose jeans—never had he seen her in a dress—and her voice was so loud that when she called his name dogs would bark and other kids jerked around. When she saw his last report card he thought her shouting would set off the car alarms four stories below. But her laughter was as loud as her shouting, and there was no better, more gratifying sound than when she slapped her knees and cackled at something silly. She laughed at things that weren’t meant to be funny, like TV dramas and the swollen orchestral soundtracks that accompanied them, or, better yet, at things Deming said, like when he nailed the way their neighbor Tommie always went, “Not bad-not bad-not bad” when they passed him in the stairwell, an automatic response to a “Hello-how-are-you” that hadn’t yet been issued. Or the time she’d asked, flipping through TV stations, “Dancing with the Stars isn’t on?” and he had excavated Michael’s old paper mobile of the solar system and waltzed with it through the living room as she clapped. It was almost as good as getting cheered on by his friends.

When he had lived in Minjiang with his grandfather, Deming’s mother had explored New York by herself. There was a restlessness to her, an inability to be still or settled. She jiggled her legs, bounced her knees, cracked her knuckles, twirled her thumbs. She hated being cooped up in the apartment on a sunny day, paced the rooms from wall to wall to wall, a cigarette dangling from her mouth. “Who wants to go for a walk?” she would say. Her boyfriend Leon would tell her to relax, sit down. “Sit down? We’ve been sitting all day!” Deming would want to stay on the couch with Michael, but he couldn’t say no to her and they’d go out, no family but each other. He would have her to himself, an ambling walk in the park or along the river, making up stories about who lived in the apartments they saw from the outside—a family named Smith, five kids, father dead, mother addicted to bagels, he speculated the day they went to the Upper East Side. “To bagels?” she said. “What flavor bagel?” “Everything bagels,” he said, which made her giggle harder, until they were both bent over on Madison Avenue, laughing so hard no sounds were coming out, and his stomach hurt but he couldn’t stop laughing, old white people giving them stink eye for stopping in the middle of the sidewalk. Deming and his mother loved everything bagels, the sheer balls of it, the New York audacity that a bagel could proclaim to be everything, even if it was only topped with sesame seeds and poppy seeds and salt.

A bus lumbered past, spraying slush. The walk sign flashed on. “You know what I did today?” his mother said. “One lady, she had a callus the size of your nose on her heel. I had to scrape all that dead skin off. It took forever. And her tip was shit. You’ll never do that, if you’re careful.”

He dreaded this familiar refrain. His mother could curse, but the one time he’d let motherfucker bounce out in front of her, loving the way the syllables got meatbally in his mouth, she had slapped his arm and said he was better than that. Now he silently said the word to himself as he walked, one syllable per footstep.

“Did you think that when I was growing up, a small girl your age, I thought: hey, one day, I’m going to come all the way to New York so I can pick gao gao out of a stranger’s toe? That was not my plan.”

Always be prepared, she liked to say. Never rely on anyone else to give you things you could get yourself. She despised laziness, softness, people who were weak. She had few friends, but was true to the ones she had. She could hold a fierce grudge, would walk an extra three blocks to another grocery store because, two years ago, a cashier at the one around the corner had smirked at her lousy English. It was lousy, Deming agreed.

From The Leavers. Printed by permission of Algonquin Books. Copyright © 2017 by Lisa Ko.

(Photo: Bartosz Potocki)
page_5: 

The Windfall
by Diksha Basu

The following week, on an unusually overcast September day, Mr. Jha pulled into the quiet lane of his new Gurgaon home. He had never been here by himself, he realized. Mrs. Jha was usually with him, and this summer Rupak had come with them a few times, and there were all the contractors and painters and builders buzzing around, working. He had never really appreciated the silence and the greenery before. Gurgaon felt still while the rest of Delhi throbbed.

The air was heavy with heat and the promise of rain. On the radio, a Bon Jovi song played. “It’s been raining since you left me,” the lyrics said. How funny, Mr. Jha thought. An Indian song would have to say, “It hasn’t rained since you left me.” Unless, of course, you were happy that they left you.

An electronic shoe-polishing machine in a large box was on the passenger seat of his Mercedes. He had strapped it in with the seat belt. It was beautiful. And it was expensive. It was not a planned purchase. This morning he had a breakfast meeting with two young men who were launching a website that would help you find handymen around Delhi, and they asked him to join their team as a consultant. He declined. He did not have time to take on any new work until they were done moving homes. And then they had to visit Rupak, so he was not going to have any free time until November or December. And then it would be the holiday season, so really it was best if he took the rest of the year off work.

The meeting was over breakfast at the luxurious Teresa’s Hotel in Connaught Place in central Delhi, and after filling himself up with mini croissants, fruit tarts, sliced cheeses, salami, coffee, and orange juice, Mr. Jha went for a stroll through the lobby and the other restaurants in the hotel. All the five-star hotels in the center of town were little oases of calm and cool. Mr. Jha was walking by the large windows that overlooked the swimming pool that was for guests only when he thought he would book a two-night stay here. He knew his wife loved the indulgence of nice hotels and he had recently read about what youngsters were calling a staycation—a vacation where you don’t leave the city or the home you usually live in, but you give yourself a few days to take a holiday. Of course, since he didn’t work much anymore, most days, weeks, months were a staycation, but how wonderful it would be to check into a hotel and have a lazy few days. Having room service—or, like they were called at Teresa’s, butlers—was a different sort of pleasure than having servants bringing you food and cleaning your home. Butlers showed that you had made the progression from servants to expensive appliances to uniformed men who ran the expensive appliances.

From The Windfall, published by Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, in June. Copyright © 2017 by Diksha Basu.

(Photo: Mikey McCleary)

First Fiction 2016

by

Staff

6.14.16

For our sixteenth annual roundup of the summer’s best debut fiction, we asked five established authors to introduce this year’s group of debut writers. Read the July/August 2016 issue of the magazine for interviews between Yaa Gyasi and Angela Flournoy, Masande Ntshanga and Naomi Jackson, Rumaan Alam and Emma Straub, Maryse Meijer and Lindsay Hunter, and Imbolo Mbue and Christina Baker Kline. But first, check out these exclusive readings and excerpts from their debut novels.

Homegoing (Knopf, June) by Yaa Gyasi
The Reactive (Two Dollar Radio, June) by Masande Ntshanga
Rich and Pretty (Ecco, June) by Rumaan Alam
Heartbreaker (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, July) by Maryse Meijer
Behold the Dreamers (Random House, August) by Imbolo Mbue

 

Homegoing
By Yaa Gyasi

The night Effia Otcher was born into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods just outside her father’s compound. It moved quickly, tearing a path for days. It lived off the air; it slept in caves and hid in trees; it burned, up and through, unconcerned with what wreckage it left behind, until it reached an Asante village. There, it disappeared, becoming one with the night.

Effia’s father, Cobbe Otcher, left his first wife, Baaba, with the new baby so that he might survey the damage to his yams, that most precious crop known far and wide to sustain families. Cobbe had lost seven yams, and he felt each loss as a blow to his own family. He knew then that the memory of the fire that burned, then fled, would haunt him, his children, and his children’s children for as long as the line continued. When he came back into Baaba’s hut to find Effia, the child of the night’s fire, shrieking into the air, he looked at his wife and said, “We will never again speak of what happened today.”

The villagers began to say that the baby was born of the fire, that this was the reason Baaba had no milk. Effia was nursed by Cobbe’s second wife, who had just given birth to a son three months before. Effia would not latch on, and when she did, her sharp gums would tear at the flesh around the woman’s nipples until she became afraid to feed the baby. Because of this, Effia grew thinner, skin on small bird- like bones, with a large black hole of a mouth that expelled a hungry crywhich could be heard throughout the village, even on the days Baaba did her best to smother it, covering the baby’s lips with the rough palm of her left hand.

“Love her,” Cobbe commanded, as though love were as simple an act as lifting food up from an iron plate and past one’s lips. At night, Baaba dreamed of leaving the baby in the dark forest so that the god Nyame could do with her as he pleased.

Effia grew older. The summer after her third birthday, Baaba had her first son. The boy’s name was Fiifi, and he was so fat that some- times, when Baaba wasn’t looking, Effia would roll him along the ground like a ball. The first day that Baaba let Effia hold him, she accidentally dropped him. The baby bounced on his buttocks, landed on his stomach, and looked up at everyone in the room, confused as to whether or not he should cry. He decided against it, but Baaba, who had been stirring banku, lifted her stirring stick and beat Effia across her bare back. Each time the stick lifted off the girl’s body, it would leave behind hot, sticky pieces of banku that burned into her flesh. By the time Baaba had finished, Effia was covered with sores, screaming and crying. From the floor, rolling this way and that on his belly, Fiifi looked at Effia with his saucer eyes but made no noise.

Cobbe came home to find his other wives attending to Effia’s wounds and understood immediately what had happened. He and Baaba fought well into the night. Effia could hear them through the thin walls of the hut where she lay on the floor, drifting in and out of a feverish sleep. In her dream, Cobbe was a lion and Baaba was a tree. The lion plucked the tree from the ground where it stood and slammed it back down. The tree stretched its branches in protest, and the lion ripped them off, one by one. The tree, horizontal, began to cry red ants that traveled down the thin cracks between its bark. The ants pooled on the soft earth around the top of the tree trunk.

And so the cycle began. Baaba beat Effia. Cobbe beat Baaba. By the time Effia had reached age ten, she could recite a history of the scars on her body. The summer of 1764, when Baaba broke yams across her back. The spring of 1767, when Baaba bashed her left foot with a rock, breaking her big toe so that it now always pointed away from the other toes. For each scar on Effia’s body, there was a companion scar on Baaba’ s, but that didn’t stop mother from beating daughter, father from beating mother.

Matters were only made worse by Effia’s blossoming beauty. When she was twelve, her breasts arrived, two lumps that sprung from her chest, as soft as mango flesh. The men of the village knew that first blood would soon follow, and they waited for the chance to ask Baaba and Cobbe for her hand. The gifts started. One man tapped palm wine better than anyone else in the village, but another’s fishing nets were never empty. Cobbe’s family feasted off Effia’s burgeoning woman- hood. Their bellies, their hands, were never empty.

Excerpted from HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi. Copyright © 2016 by Yaa Gyasi. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

The Reactive
By Masande Ntshanga

The way I got to know them, by the way, my two closest friends here, is that we met at one of the new HIV and drug-counseling sessions cropping up all over the city. We were in the basement parking lot of the free clinic in Wynberg. The seminar room upstairs had been locked up and taped shut, there’d been a mer­cury spill, and our group couldn’t meet in there on account of the vapors being toxic to human tissue. Instead, they arranged us in the basement parking lot, and in two weeks we got used to not being sent upstairs for meetings. I did, in any case, and that was enough for me in the beginning.

In those days, I attended the meetings alone. I’d catch a taxi from Obs over to Wynberg for an afternoon’s worth of coun­seling. By the end of my first month, when the seminar room had been swept once, and then twice, and then three times by a short man who wore a blue contamination meter over his chest, each time checking out clean, everyone decided they preferred it down below, and so that’s where we stayed.

Maybe we all want to be buried here, I said.

It had been the first time I’d spoken in group. Talking always took me a while, back then, but the remark succeeded in making a few of them laugh. It won me chuckles even from the old-timers, and later, I wrote down my first addiction story to share with the group. It was from a film I saw adapted from a book I wasn’t likely to read. Ruan and Cissie arrived on the following Wednesday.

I noticed them immediately. Something seemed to draw us in from our first meeting. In the parking lot, we eyeballed each other for a while before we spoke. During the coffee break, we stood by the serving table in front of a peeling Toyota bakkie, mumbling tentatively towards each other’s profiles. I learned that Cecelia was a teacher. She pulled week-long shifts at a day­care center just off Bridge Street in Mowbray, and she was there on account of the school’s accepting its first openly positive pupil. Ruan, who was leaning against the plastic table, gulping more than sipping at the coffee in his paper cup, said that he suffocated through his life by working on the top floor of his uncle’s computer firm. He was there to shop for a social issue they could use for their corporate responsibility strategy. He called it CRS, and Cissie and I had to ask him what he meant.

In the end, I guess I was impressed. I told them how I used to be a lab assistant at Peninsula Tech, and how in a way this was part of how I’d got to be sick with what I have.

When we sat back down again, we listened to the rest of the members assess each other’s nightmares. They passed them around with a familiar casualness. Mark knew about Ronelle’s school fees, for instance, and she knew about Linette’s hepatitis, and all of us knew that Linda had developed a spate of genital warts over September. She called them water warts, when she first told us, and, like most of her symptoms, she blamed them on the rain.

That day, when the discussion turned to drug abuse, as it always did during the last half-hour of our sessions, the three of us had nothing to add. I looked over at Ruan and caught him stashing a grin behind his fist, while on my other side, Cecelia blinked up at the ceiling. I didn’t need any more evidence for our kinship.

The meeting lasted the full two hours, and when it came to an end, I collected my proof of attendance and exchanged num­bers with Ruan and Cecelia. I suppose we said our goodbyes at the entrance of the parking lot that day, and later, within that same week I think, we were huffing paint thinner together in my flat in Obs.

Excerpted from The Reactive by Masande Ntshanga. Copyright  ©  2016 by Masande Ntshanga. Excerpted by permission of Two Dollar Radio. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

 Rich and Pretty
By Rumaan Alam

Lauren’s office is freezing. You could keep butter on the desk. You could perform surgery. Every woman in the office—they’re all women—keeps a cashmere sweater on the back of her chair. They sit, hands outstretched over computer keyboards like a bum’s over a flaming garbage can. The usual office noises: typing, telephones, people using indoor voices, the double ding of an elevator going down. For some reason, the double ding of the elevator going down is louder than the single ding of the elevator going up. There’s a metaphor in there, waiting to be untangled. They make cookbooks, these women. There’s no food, just stacks of paper and editorial assistants in glasses. She’s worked here for four years. It’s fine.

Today is different because today there’s a guy, an actual dude, in the office with them, not a photographer or stylist popping by for a meeting, as does happen: He’s
a temp, because Kristen is having a baby and her doctor put her on bed rest. Lauren isn’t totally clear on what Kristen does, but now there’s a dude doing it. He’s wearing a button-down shirt and jeans, and loafers, not sneakers, which implies a certain maturity. Lauren’s been trying to get him to notice her all day. She’s the second-prettiest woman in the office, so it isn’t hard. Hannah, the prettiest, has a vacant quality about her. She’s not stupid, exactly—in fact, she’s very competent—but she doesn’t have spark. She’s not interesting, just thin and blond, with heavy eyeglasses and a photograph of her French bulldog on her computer screen.

Lauren has it all planned out. She’ll walk past his desk a couple of times, which isn’t suspicious because his desk isn’t far from the kitchen, and the kitchen is where the coffee is, and by the third time, he’ll follow her in there, and she’ll make a wisecrack about the coffee, and he’ll say it’s not so bad, and they’ll talk, and exchange phone numbers, e-mail addresses, whatever, and then later they’ll leave the office at the same time, ride down together in the elevator and not talk because they both understand that the social contract dictates that sane people do not talk in elevators, and then he’ll let her go through the revolving door first, even though she’s pretty sure that etiquette has it that men precede women through revolving doors, and then they’ll both be standing on Broadway, and there will be traffic and that vague smell of charred, ethnic meat from the guy with the lunch cart on the corner, and he’ll suggest they get a drink, and she’ll say sure, and they’ll go to the Irish pub on Fifty-Fifth Street, because there’s nowhere else to go, and after two drinks they’ll be starving, and he’ll suggest they get dinner, but there’s nowhere to eat in this part of town, so they’ll take the train to Union Square and realize there’s nowhere to eat there either, and they’ll walk down into the East Village and find something, maybe ramen, or that Moroccan-y place that she always forgets she likes, and they’ll eat, and they’ll start touching each other, casually but deliberately, carefully, and the check will come and she’ll say let’s split it, and he’ll say no let me, even though he’s a temp and can’t make that much money, right? Then they’ll be drunk, so taking a cab seems wise and they’ll make out in the backseat, but just a little bit, and kind of laugh about it, too: stop to check their phones, or admire the view, or so he can explain that he lives with a roommate or a dog, or so she can tell him some stupid story about work that won’t mean anything to him anyway because it’s only his first day and he doesn’t know anyone’s name, let alone their personality quirks and the complexities of the office’s political and social ecosystem.

Then he’ll pay the driver, because they’ll go to his place—she doesn’t want to bring the temp back to her place—and it’ll be nice, or fine, or ugly, and he’ll open beers because all he has are beers, and she’ll pretend to drink hers even though she’s had enough, and he’ll excuse himself for a minute to go to the bathroom, but really it’s to brush his teeth, piss, maybe rub some wet toilet paper around his ass and under his balls. This is something Gabe had told her, years ago, that men do this, or at least, that he did. Unerotic, but somehow touching. Then the temp will come sit next to her on the couch, please let it be a couch and not a futon, and he’ll play with her hair a little before he kisses her, his mouth minty, hers beery. He’ll be out of his shirt, then, and he’s hard and hairy, but also a little soft at the belly, which she likes. She once slept with this guy Sean, whose torso, hairless and lean, freaked her out. It was like having sex with a female mannequin. The temp will push or pull her into his bedroom, just the right balance of aggression and respect, and the room will be fine, or ugly, and the bedsheets will be navy, as men’s bedsheets always are, and there will be venetian blinds, and lots of books on the nightstand because he’s temping at a publishing company so he must love to read. She’ll tug her shirt over her head, and he’ll pull at her bra, and they’ll be naked, and he’ll fumble around for a condom, and his dick will be long but not, crucially, thick, and it will be good, and then it will be over. They’ll laugh about how this whole thing is against the company’s sexual harassment policy. She’ll try to cover herself with the sheet, and he’ll do the same, suddenly embarrassed by his smaller, slightly sticky dick. When he’s out of the room, to get a beer, to piss, whatever, she’ll get dressed. He’ll call her a car service, because there are no yellow cabs wherever he lives. They’ll both spend the part of the night right before they fall asleep trying to figure out how to act around each other in the office tomorrow.

Or maybe not that. Maybe she’ll find a way to go up to him and say, what, exactly, Hey, do you like parties? Do you want to go to a party . . . tonight? No, the jeans and tie are fine. It’s not fancy. A party. A good party. Good open bar, for sure. Probably canapés, what are canapés exactly, whatever they are, there will probably be some. Last party, there were these balls of cornbread and shrimp, like deep fried, holy shit they were great. That was last year, I think. Anyway, there might be celebrities there. There will definitely be celebrities there. I once saw Bill Clinton at one of these parties. He’s skinnier than you’d think. Anyway, think about it, it’ll be a time, and by the way, I’m Lauren, I’m an associate editor here and you are? She can picture his conversation, the words coming to her so easily, as they do in fantasy but never in reality. They call it meeting cute, in movies, but it only happens in movies.

From Rich and Pretty by Rumaan Alam. Copyright © 2016 by Rumaan Alam. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Heartbreaker
By Maryse Meijer

Daddy comes over on Thursdays. My husband and son are out watching movies where people blow each other up. They have burgers afterward and buf- falo wings and milkshakes and they talk about  TV shows and girls and the latest bloody video game. At least that’s what I imagine they do. No way do they imagine what I am doing, sitting here at the kitchen table doing my math homework as Daddy microwaves the mac and cheese he brought over. We have three hours together and in these three hours I am twelve years old and my daddy is the most wonderful man in the world.

On craigslist I post the photo from my work website, the one with my hair scraped back in a ponytail, expos- ing my shiny forehead, my thin lips, my arms bursting from the sleeves of my blue blouse. Daughter seeks Father is all I write as a caption. In response I receive an avalanche of cell-phone numbers, chat invitations, and penis pics lifted from porn sites.

I delete all the emails except for Richard’s: Sweetheart, please call home. I sit for a moment hunched in my cubicle, sweating, before lifting the receiver and dialing his number.

Daddy? I whisper, hand up to cover my mouth so no one walking by can see it moving.

He doesn’t skip a beat. Sweetheart! he says. Did you see the photo? I ask.

Of course, he says.

I’m not better in person, I warn. You’re perfect, he assures me.

I’m married, I tell him. I have a kid. No problem, he insists.

I chew the inside of my cheek. There’s not going to be any sex, I say.

Absolutely not! he agrees.

I wait for him to say something creepy or disgusting, but he doesn’t. We make arrangements to meet at McDonald’s for dinner on Thursday.

Don’t kill me, I say, and he laughs.

Oh sweetheart, he says. What on earth?

I’m  early. I don’t  know what Daddy looks like and every time the door swings open my head jerks like a ball on a string. I convince myself I’m going to be stood up and that it will be better anyway if I am. But at seven on the dot he enters and he looks straight at me and waves.

Our usual, sweetheart?  he says, loud enough for other people to hear, and I nod. He brings a tray of chicken nugget combos to my table. He kisses my cheek. The food steams in our hands as we look at each other; he seems about twenty, twenty-two, with chinos frayed at the bottoms and red hair and glasses and biceps as skinny as my wrist. Maybe someday he will be good- looking.

Extra barbecue sauce, just the way you like, he says, gesturing to my nuggets. I smile and take a bite. He asks me about school and I ask him about work and he is as interested in how I’m doing in gym class as I am in the stocks he’s trading at the office; we slip into our new roles as easily as knives into butter.

I almost forgot, he says. He reaches into the pocket of his jacket and pulls out a CD with a Christmas bow stuck on it. Just a little something, he adds, and hands it to me. I unstick the bow and turn the CD over in my hands: Britney Spears. I bounce, once, and my left butt cheek, which doesn’t quite fit on the plastic chair, bangs on the edge of the seat.

Oh Daddy, I say, touched because I k now he went into a store and asked what would be the right thing to get for his little girl, and he paid for it with his own money and put it in his pocket and found  the gaudy bow to go with it and then brought it all the way here, to me, because he k new he would like me and already wanted to give me something, and this makes me want to give everything I have to him in return.

Apart from  Thursday nights—and it’s  always Thurs- days, always nights—we don’t communicate, except by email. Sometimes he’ll send me a note just to say, Have a great day!! or he’ll tell me what plans he has for dinner: Working late need a treat pizza sound  good??? or he’ll hint at imagined happenings in my little-girl life: Don’t forget dentist today xoxoxoxo!! and Good luck on the history quiz I know you’ll do awesome!!!! I write back in equally breathless terms to report the results of the history quiz or the number of cavities rotting my teeth or to squeal over the impending pizza feast. These exchanges give me a high so intense my chest muscles spasm and when my boss calls and says to bring her such-and-such a document I hit print and out comes an email from Daddy, not the work document, and I giggle into my hand and hit print again.

He always arrives exactly fifteen minutes after my hus- band and son leave. I sit on the couch with the televi- sion on while he fumbles with the keys and the empty banged-up briefcase he always brings. Sweetheart! he says when he enters, and I yelp Daddy! and if I was maybe ten or twenty or, okay, thirty pounds lighter, I might run toward him, but as it is I wait on the couch for him to come over and k iss my hair. I’ll pour him a soda on the rocks and he’ll  pour  me some milk and we touch glasses and smile. If my husband calls I stand by the back door with my head down and say Uh-huh, yes, fine, all right, see you soon, no, nothing for me, thanks, I’m enjoying the leftovers, have fun, love you.

Excerpted from Heartbreaker by Maryse Meijer. Copyright ©  Maryse Meijer, 2016. Reprinted with permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Behold the Dreamers
By Imbolo Mbue

He’d never been asked to wear a suit to a job interview. Never been told to bring along a copy of his résumé. He hadn’t even owned a résumé until the previous week when he’d gone to the library on Thirty-fourth and Madison and a volunteer career counselor had written one for him, detailed his work history to suggest he was a man of grand accomplishments: farmer responsible for tilling land and growing healthy crops; street cleaner responsible for making sure the town of Limbe looked beautiful and pristine; dishwasher in Manhattan restaurant, in charge of ensuring patrons ate from clean and germ-free plates; livery cabdriver in the Bronx, responsible for taking passengers safely from place to place.

He’d never had to worry about whether his experience would be appropriate, whether his English would be perfect, whether he would succeed in coming across as intelligent enough. But today, dressed in the green double-breasted pinstripe suit he’d worn the day he entered America, his ability to impress a man he’d never met was all he could think about. Try as he might, he could do nothing but think about the questions he might be asked, the answers he would need to give, the way he would have to walk and talk and sit, the times he would need to speak or listen and nod, the things he would have to say or not say, the response he would need to give if asked about his legal status in the country. His throat went dry. His palms moistened. Unable to reach for his handkerchief in the packed downtown subway, he wiped both palms on his pants.

“Good morning, please,” he said to the security guard in the lobby when he arrived at Lehman Brothers. “My name is Jende Jonga. I am here for Mr. Edwards. Mr. Clark Edwards.”

The guard, goateed and freckled, asked for his ID, which he quickly pulled out of his brown bifold wallet. The man took it, examined it front and back, looked up at his face, looked down at his suit, smiled, and asked if he was trying to become a stockbroker or something.

Jende shook his head. “No,” he replied without smiling back. “A chauffeur.”

“Right on,” the guard said as he handed him a visitor pass. “Good luck with that.”

This time Jende smiled. “Thank you, my brother,” he said. “I really need all that good luck today.”

Alone in the elevator to the twenty-eighth floor, he inspected his fingernails (no dirt, thankfully). He adjusted his clip-on tie using the security mirror above his head; reexamined his teeth and found no visible remnants of the fried ripe plantains and beans he’d eaten for breakfast. He cleared his throat and wiped off whatever saliva had crusted on the sides of his lips. When the doors opened he straightened his shoulders and introduced himself to the receptionist, who, after responding with a nod and a display of extraordinarily white teeth, made a phone call and asked him to follow her. They walked through an open space where young men in blue shirts sat in cubicles with multiple screens, down a corridor, past another open space of cluttered cubicles and into a sunny office with a four-paneled glass window running from wall to wall and floor to ceiling, the thousand autumn-drenched trees and proud towers of Manhattan standing outside. For a second his mouth fell open, at the view outside—the likes of which he’d never seen—and the exquisiteness inside. There was a lounging section (black leather sofa, two black leather chairs, glass coffee table) to his right, an executive desk (oval, cherry, black leather reclining chair for the executive, two green leather armchairs for visitors) in the center, and a wall unit (cherry, glass doors, white folders in neat rows) to his left, in front of which Clark Edwards, in a dark suit, was standing and feeding sheets of paper into a pullout shredder.

“Please, sir, good morning,” Jende said, turning toward him and half-bowing.

“Have a seat,” Clark said without lifting his eyes from the shredder.

Jende hurried to the armchair on the left. He pulled a résumé from his folder and placed it in front of Clark’s seat, careful not to disturb the layers of white papers and Wall Street Journals strewn across the desk in a jumble. One of the Journal pages, peeking from beneath sheets of numbers and graphs, had the headline: Whites’ Great Hope? Barack Obama and the Dream of a Color-blind America.” Jende leaned forward to read the story, fascinated as he was by the young ambitious senator, but immediately sat upright when he remembered where he was, why he was there, what was about to happen.

“Do you have any outstanding tickets you need to resolve?” Clark asked as he sat down.

“No, sir,” Jende replied.

“And you haven’t been in any serious accidents, right?”

“No, Mr. Edwards.”

Clark picked up the résumé from his desk, wrinkled and moist like the man whose history it held. His eyes remained on it for several seconds while Jende’s darted back and forth, from the Central Park treetops far beyond the window to the office walls lined with abstract paintings and portraits of white men wearing bow ties. He could feel beads of sweat rising out of his forehead.

“Well, Jende,” Clark said, putting the résumé down and leaning back in his chair. “Tell me about yourself.”

Excerpted from Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue. Copyright  ©  2016 by Imbolo Mbue. Reprinted with permission of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

First Fiction 2016: Nine More Notable Debuts

As part of our sixteenth annual First Fiction roundup, in which five debut authors—Yaa GyasiMasande Ntshanga, Rumaan Alam, Maryse Meijer, and Imbolo Mbue—discuss their first books, we picked nine more notable debuts that fans of fiction should consider reading this summer.

Remarkable (BOA Editions, May) by Dinah Cox
Set primarily in Oklahoma, the remarkable (that’s right, remarkable) stories in Cox’s award-winning collection spotlight characters whose wit, resilience, and pathos are as vast as the Great Plains landscape they inhabit.

Anatomy of a Soldier (Knopf, May) by Harry Parker
A former officer in the British Army who lost his legs in Afghanistan in 2009, Parker delivers a riveting, provocative novel that captures his wartime experience in an unconventional way. Forty-five inanimate objects—including a helmet, boots, and weapons—act as narrators, together offering the reader a powerful new perspective on war.

Goodnight, Beautiful Women (Grove, June) by Anna Noyes
With language both sensuous and precise, these interconnected stories immerse us in the lives of women and girls in coastal Maine as they navigate familial intimacy, sexual awakening, and love’s indiscretions.

Grief Is the Thing With Feathers (Graywolf, June) by Max Porter
In the wake of his wife’s sudden death, a man is visited by Crow, a “sentimental bird” that settles into the man’s life and the lives of his children in an attempt to heal the wounded family. A nuanced meditation that not only breaks open the boundaries of what constitutes a novel, but also demonstrates through its fragmentary form the unique challenge of writing about grief.

A Hundred Thousand Worlds (Viking, June) by Bob Proehl
Valerie and her son embark on a road trip from New York to Los Angeles to reunite the nine-year-old with his estranged father, attending comic-book conventions along the way. Proehl weaves the comic-con worlds of monsters and superheroes into a complex family saga, a tribute to a mother’s love and the way we tell stories that shape our lives.

Lily and the Octopus (Simon & Schuster, June) 
by Steven Rowley
Rowley’s novel centers on narrator Ted Flask and his aging companion—a dachshund named Lily—but readers who mistake this as a simple “boy and his dog” story are in for a profound and pleasant surprise. This powerful debut is a touching exploration of friendship and grief.

Pond (Riverhead Books, July) 
by Claire-Louise Bennett
In this compelling, innovative debut, the interior reality of an unnamed narrator—a solitary young woman living on the outskirts of a small coastal village—is revealed through the details of everyday life, some rendered in long stretches of narrative and others in poetic fragments. Bennett’s unique portrait of a persona emerges with an intensity and vision not often seen, or felt, in a debut. 

Champion of the World (Putnam, July) by Chad Dundas
Gangsters, bootlegging, and fixed competitions converge in the tumultuous world of 1920s American wrestling, which disgraced former lightweight champion Pepper Van Dean and his wife, Moira, must navigate in order to create the life they want. With crisp, muscular prose, this 470-page historical novel illuminates a time of rapid change in America.

Problems (Emily Books, July) by Jade Sharma
Raw, unrepentant, and biting with dark humor, Problems turns the addiction-redemption narrative inside out, as Sharma follows heroin hobbyist Maya through her increasingly chaotic life after the end of both her marriage and an affair. 

First Fiction 2016

by

Staff

6.14.16

For our sixteenth annual roundup of the summer’s best debut fiction, we asked five established authors to introduce this year’s group of debut writers. Read the July/August 2016 issue of the magazine for interviews between Yaa Gyasi and Angela Flournoy, Masande Ntshanga and Naomi Jackson, Rumaan Alam and Emma Straub, Maryse Meijer and Lindsay Hunter, and Imbolo Mbue and Christina Baker Kline. But first, check out these exclusive readings and excerpts from their debut novels.

Homegoing (Knopf, June) by Yaa Gyasi
The Reactive (Two Dollar Radio, June) by Masande Ntshanga
Rich and Pretty (Ecco, June) by Rumaan Alam
Heartbreaker (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, July) by Maryse Meijer
Behold the Dreamers (Random House, August) by Imbolo Mbue

 

Homegoing
By Yaa Gyasi

The night Effia Otcher was born into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods just outside her father’s compound. It moved quickly, tearing a path for days. It lived off the air; it slept in caves and hid in trees; it burned, up and through, unconcerned with what wreckage it left behind, until it reached an Asante village. There, it disappeared, becoming one with the night.

Effia’s father, Cobbe Otcher, left his first wife, Baaba, with the new baby so that he might survey the damage to his yams, that most precious crop known far and wide to sustain families. Cobbe had lost seven yams, and he felt each loss as a blow to his own family. He knew then that the memory of the fire that burned, then fled, would haunt him, his children, and his children’s children for as long as the line continued. When he came back into Baaba’s hut to find Effia, the child of the night’s fire, shrieking into the air, he looked at his wife and said, “We will never again speak of what happened today.”

The villagers began to say that the baby was born of the fire, that this was the reason Baaba had no milk. Effia was nursed by Cobbe’s second wife, who had just given birth to a son three months before. Effia would not latch on, and when she did, her sharp gums would tear at the flesh around the woman’s nipples until she became afraid to feed the baby. Because of this, Effia grew thinner, skin on small bird- like bones, with a large black hole of a mouth that expelled a hungry crywhich could be heard throughout the village, even on the days Baaba did her best to smother it, covering the baby’s lips with the rough palm of her left hand.

“Love her,” Cobbe commanded, as though love were as simple an act as lifting food up from an iron plate and past one’s lips. At night, Baaba dreamed of leaving the baby in the dark forest so that the god Nyame could do with her as he pleased.

Effia grew older. The summer after her third birthday, Baaba had her first son. The boy’s name was Fiifi, and he was so fat that some- times, when Baaba wasn’t looking, Effia would roll him along the ground like a ball. The first day that Baaba let Effia hold him, she accidentally dropped him. The baby bounced on his buttocks, landed on his stomach, and looked up at everyone in the room, confused as to whether or not he should cry. He decided against it, but Baaba, who had been stirring banku, lifted her stirring stick and beat Effia across her bare back. Each time the stick lifted off the girl’s body, it would leave behind hot, sticky pieces of banku that burned into her flesh. By the time Baaba had finished, Effia was covered with sores, screaming and crying. From the floor, rolling this way and that on his belly, Fiifi looked at Effia with his saucer eyes but made no noise.

Cobbe came home to find his other wives attending to Effia’s wounds and understood immediately what had happened. He and Baaba fought well into the night. Effia could hear them through the thin walls of the hut where she lay on the floor, drifting in and out of a feverish sleep. In her dream, Cobbe was a lion and Baaba was a tree. The lion plucked the tree from the ground where it stood and slammed it back down. The tree stretched its branches in protest, and the lion ripped them off, one by one. The tree, horizontal, began to cry red ants that traveled down the thin cracks between its bark. The ants pooled on the soft earth around the top of the tree trunk.

And so the cycle began. Baaba beat Effia. Cobbe beat Baaba. By the time Effia had reached age ten, she could recite a history of the scars on her body. The summer of 1764, when Baaba broke yams across her back. The spring of 1767, when Baaba bashed her left foot with a rock, breaking her big toe so that it now always pointed away from the other toes. For each scar on Effia’s body, there was a companion scar on Baaba’ s, but that didn’t stop mother from beating daughter, father from beating mother.

Matters were only made worse by Effia’s blossoming beauty. When she was twelve, her breasts arrived, two lumps that sprung from her chest, as soft as mango flesh. The men of the village knew that first blood would soon follow, and they waited for the chance to ask Baaba and Cobbe for her hand. The gifts started. One man tapped palm wine better than anyone else in the village, but another’s fishing nets were never empty. Cobbe’s family feasted off Effia’s burgeoning woman- hood. Their bellies, their hands, were never empty.

Excerpted from HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi. Copyright © 2016 by Yaa Gyasi. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

The Reactive
By Masande Ntshanga

The way I got to know them, by the way, my two closest friends here, is that we met at one of the new HIV and drug-counseling sessions cropping up all over the city. We were in the basement parking lot of the free clinic in Wynberg. The seminar room upstairs had been locked up and taped shut, there’d been a mer­cury spill, and our group couldn’t meet in there on account of the vapors being toxic to human tissue. Instead, they arranged us in the basement parking lot, and in two weeks we got used to not being sent upstairs for meetings. I did, in any case, and that was enough for me in the beginning.

In those days, I attended the meetings alone. I’d catch a taxi from Obs over to Wynberg for an afternoon’s worth of coun­seling. By the end of my first month, when the seminar room had been swept once, and then twice, and then three times by a short man who wore a blue contamination meter over his chest, each time checking out clean, everyone decided they preferred it down below, and so that’s where we stayed.

Maybe we all want to be buried here, I said.

It had been the first time I’d spoken in group. Talking always took me a while, back then, but the remark succeeded in making a few of them laugh. It won me chuckles even from the old-timers, and later, I wrote down my first addiction story to share with the group. It was from a film I saw adapted from a book I wasn’t likely to read. Ruan and Cissie arrived on the following Wednesday.

I noticed them immediately. Something seemed to draw us in from our first meeting. In the parking lot, we eyeballed each other for a while before we spoke. During the coffee break, we stood by the serving table in front of a peeling Toyota bakkie, mumbling tentatively towards each other’s profiles. I learned that Cecelia was a teacher. She pulled week-long shifts at a day­care center just off Bridge Street in Mowbray, and she was there on account of the school’s accepting its first openly positive pupil. Ruan, who was leaning against the plastic table, gulping more than sipping at the coffee in his paper cup, said that he suffocated through his life by working on the top floor of his uncle’s computer firm. He was there to shop for a social issue they could use for their corporate responsibility strategy. He called it CRS, and Cissie and I had to ask him what he meant.

In the end, I guess I was impressed. I told them how I used to be a lab assistant at Peninsula Tech, and how in a way this was part of how I’d got to be sick with what I have.

When we sat back down again, we listened to the rest of the members assess each other’s nightmares. They passed them around with a familiar casualness. Mark knew about Ronelle’s school fees, for instance, and she knew about Linette’s hepatitis, and all of us knew that Linda had developed a spate of genital warts over September. She called them water warts, when she first told us, and, like most of her symptoms, she blamed them on the rain.

That day, when the discussion turned to drug abuse, as it always did during the last half-hour of our sessions, the three of us had nothing to add. I looked over at Ruan and caught him stashing a grin behind his fist, while on my other side, Cecelia blinked up at the ceiling. I didn’t need any more evidence for our kinship.

The meeting lasted the full two hours, and when it came to an end, I collected my proof of attendance and exchanged num­bers with Ruan and Cecelia. I suppose we said our goodbyes at the entrance of the parking lot that day, and later, within that same week I think, we were huffing paint thinner together in my flat in Obs.

Excerpted from The Reactive by Masande Ntshanga. Copyright  ©  2016 by Masande Ntshanga. Excerpted by permission of Two Dollar Radio. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

 Rich and Pretty
By Rumaan Alam

Lauren’s office is freezing. You could keep butter on the desk. You could perform surgery. Every woman in the office—they’re all women—keeps a cashmere sweater on the back of her chair. They sit, hands outstretched over computer keyboards like a bum’s over a flaming garbage can. The usual office noises: typing, telephones, people using indoor voices, the double ding of an elevator going down. For some reason, the double ding of the elevator going down is louder than the single ding of the elevator going up. There’s a metaphor in there, waiting to be untangled. They make cookbooks, these women. There’s no food, just stacks of paper and editorial assistants in glasses. She’s worked here for four years. It’s fine.

Today is different because today there’s a guy, an actual dude, in the office with them, not a photographer or stylist popping by for a meeting, as does happen: He’s
a temp, because Kristen is having a baby and her doctor put her on bed rest. Lauren isn’t totally clear on what Kristen does, but now there’s a dude doing it. He’s wearing a button-down shirt and jeans, and loafers, not sneakers, which implies a certain maturity. Lauren’s been trying to get him to notice her all day. She’s the second-prettiest woman in the office, so it isn’t hard. Hannah, the prettiest, has a vacant quality about her. She’s not stupid, exactly—in fact, she’s very competent—but she doesn’t have spark. She’s not interesting, just thin and blond, with heavy eyeglasses and a photograph of her French bulldog on her computer screen.

Lauren has it all planned out. She’ll walk past his desk a couple of times, which isn’t suspicious because his desk isn’t far from the kitchen, and the kitchen is where the coffee is, and by the third time, he’ll follow her in there, and she’ll make a wisecrack about the coffee, and he’ll say it’s not so bad, and they’ll talk, and exchange phone numbers, e-mail addresses, whatever, and then later they’ll leave the office at the same time, ride down together in the elevator and not talk because they both understand that the social contract dictates that sane people do not talk in elevators, and then he’ll let her go through the revolving door first, even though she’s pretty sure that etiquette has it that men precede women through revolving doors, and then they’ll both be standing on Broadway, and there will be traffic and that vague smell of charred, ethnic meat from the guy with the lunch cart on the corner, and he’ll suggest they get a drink, and she’ll say sure, and they’ll go to the Irish pub on Fifty-Fifth Street, because there’s nowhere else to go, and after two drinks they’ll be starving, and he’ll suggest they get dinner, but there’s nowhere to eat in this part of town, so they’ll take the train to Union Square and realize there’s nowhere to eat there either, and they’ll walk down into the East Village and find something, maybe ramen, or that Moroccan-y place that she always forgets she likes, and they’ll eat, and they’ll start touching each other, casually but deliberately, carefully, and the check will come and she’ll say let’s split it, and he’ll say no let me, even though he’s a temp and can’t make that much money, right? Then they’ll be drunk, so taking a cab seems wise and they’ll make out in the backseat, but just a little bit, and kind of laugh about it, too: stop to check their phones, or admire the view, or so he can explain that he lives with a roommate or a dog, or so she can tell him some stupid story about work that won’t mean anything to him anyway because it’s only his first day and he doesn’t know anyone’s name, let alone their personality quirks and the complexities of the office’s political and social ecosystem.

Then he’ll pay the driver, because they’ll go to his place—she doesn’t want to bring the temp back to her place—and it’ll be nice, or fine, or ugly, and he’ll open beers because all he has are beers, and she’ll pretend to drink hers even though she’s had enough, and he’ll excuse himself for a minute to go to the bathroom, but really it’s to brush his teeth, piss, maybe rub some wet toilet paper around his ass and under his balls. This is something Gabe had told her, years ago, that men do this, or at least, that he did. Unerotic, but somehow touching. Then the temp will come sit next to her on the couch, please let it be a couch and not a futon, and he’ll play with her hair a little before he kisses her, his mouth minty, hers beery. He’ll be out of his shirt, then, and he’s hard and hairy, but also a little soft at the belly, which she likes. She once slept with this guy Sean, whose torso, hairless and lean, freaked her out. It was like having sex with a female mannequin. The temp will push or pull her into his bedroom, just the right balance of aggression and respect, and the room will be fine, or ugly, and the bedsheets will be navy, as men’s bedsheets always are, and there will be venetian blinds, and lots of books on the nightstand because he’s temping at a publishing company so he must love to read. She’ll tug her shirt over her head, and he’ll pull at her bra, and they’ll be naked, and he’ll fumble around for a condom, and his dick will be long but not, crucially, thick, and it will be good, and then it will be over. They’ll laugh about how this whole thing is against the company’s sexual harassment policy. She’ll try to cover herself with the sheet, and he’ll do the same, suddenly embarrassed by his smaller, slightly sticky dick. When he’s out of the room, to get a beer, to piss, whatever, she’ll get dressed. He’ll call her a car service, because there are no yellow cabs wherever he lives. They’ll both spend the part of the night right before they fall asleep trying to figure out how to act around each other in the office tomorrow.

Or maybe not that. Maybe she’ll find a way to go up to him and say, what, exactly, Hey, do you like parties? Do you want to go to a party . . . tonight? No, the jeans and tie are fine. It’s not fancy. A party. A good party. Good open bar, for sure. Probably canapés, what are canapés exactly, whatever they are, there will probably be some. Last party, there were these balls of cornbread and shrimp, like deep fried, holy shit they were great. That was last year, I think. Anyway, there might be celebrities there. There will definitely be celebrities there. I once saw Bill Clinton at one of these parties. He’s skinnier than you’d think. Anyway, think about it, it’ll be a time, and by the way, I’m Lauren, I’m an associate editor here and you are? She can picture his conversation, the words coming to her so easily, as they do in fantasy but never in reality. They call it meeting cute, in movies, but it only happens in movies.

From Rich and Pretty by Rumaan Alam. Copyright © 2016 by Rumaan Alam. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Heartbreaker
By Maryse Meijer

Daddy comes over on Thursdays. My husband and son are out watching movies where people blow each other up. They have burgers afterward and buf- falo wings and milkshakes and they talk about  TV shows and girls and the latest bloody video game. At least that’s what I imagine they do. No way do they imagine what I am doing, sitting here at the kitchen table doing my math homework as Daddy microwaves the mac and cheese he brought over. We have three hours together and in these three hours I am twelve years old and my daddy is the most wonderful man in the world.

On craigslist I post the photo from my work website, the one with my hair scraped back in a ponytail, expos- ing my shiny forehead, my thin lips, my arms bursting from the sleeves of my blue blouse. Daughter seeks Father is all I write as a caption. In response I receive an avalanche of cell-phone numbers, chat invitations, and penis pics lifted from porn sites.

I delete all the emails except for Richard’s: Sweetheart, please call home. I sit for a moment hunched in my cubicle, sweating, before lifting the receiver and dialing his number.

Daddy? I whisper, hand up to cover my mouth so no one walking by can see it moving.

He doesn’t skip a beat. Sweetheart! he says. Did you see the photo? I ask.

Of course, he says.

I’m not better in person, I warn. You’re perfect, he assures me.

I’m married, I tell him. I have a kid. No problem, he insists.

I chew the inside of my cheek. There’s not going to be any sex, I say.

Absolutely not! he agrees.

I wait for him to say something creepy or disgusting, but he doesn’t. We make arrangements to meet at McDonald’s for dinner on Thursday.

Don’t kill me, I say, and he laughs.

Oh sweetheart, he says. What on earth?

I’m  early. I don’t  know what Daddy looks like and every time the door swings open my head jerks like a ball on a string. I convince myself I’m going to be stood up and that it will be better anyway if I am. But at seven on the dot he enters and he looks straight at me and waves.

Our usual, sweetheart?  he says, loud enough for other people to hear, and I nod. He brings a tray of chicken nugget combos to my table. He kisses my cheek. The food steams in our hands as we look at each other; he seems about twenty, twenty-two, with chinos frayed at the bottoms and red hair and glasses and biceps as skinny as my wrist. Maybe someday he will be good- looking.

Extra barbecue sauce, just the way you like, he says, gesturing to my nuggets. I smile and take a bite. He asks me about school and I ask him about work and he is as interested in how I’m doing in gym class as I am in the stocks he’s trading at the office; we slip into our new roles as easily as knives into butter.

I almost forgot, he says. He reaches into the pocket of his jacket and pulls out a CD with a Christmas bow stuck on it. Just a little something, he adds, and hands it to me. I unstick the bow and turn the CD over in my hands: Britney Spears. I bounce, once, and my left butt cheek, which doesn’t quite fit on the plastic chair, bangs on the edge of the seat.

Oh Daddy, I say, touched because I k now he went into a store and asked what would be the right thing to get for his little girl, and he paid for it with his own money and put it in his pocket and found  the gaudy bow to go with it and then brought it all the way here, to me, because he k new he would like me and already wanted to give me something, and this makes me want to give everything I have to him in return.

Apart from  Thursday nights—and it’s  always Thurs- days, always nights—we don’t communicate, except by email. Sometimes he’ll send me a note just to say, Have a great day!! or he’ll tell me what plans he has for dinner: Working late need a treat pizza sound  good??? or he’ll hint at imagined happenings in my little-girl life: Don’t forget dentist today xoxoxoxo!! and Good luck on the history quiz I know you’ll do awesome!!!! I write back in equally breathless terms to report the results of the history quiz or the number of cavities rotting my teeth or to squeal over the impending pizza feast. These exchanges give me a high so intense my chest muscles spasm and when my boss calls and says to bring her such-and-such a document I hit print and out comes an email from Daddy, not the work document, and I giggle into my hand and hit print again.

He always arrives exactly fifteen minutes after my hus- band and son leave. I sit on the couch with the televi- sion on while he fumbles with the keys and the empty banged-up briefcase he always brings. Sweetheart! he says when he enters, and I yelp Daddy! and if I was maybe ten or twenty or, okay, thirty pounds lighter, I might run toward him, but as it is I wait on the couch for him to come over and k iss my hair. I’ll pour him a soda on the rocks and he’ll  pour  me some milk and we touch glasses and smile. If my husband calls I stand by the back door with my head down and say Uh-huh, yes, fine, all right, see you soon, no, nothing for me, thanks, I’m enjoying the leftovers, have fun, love you.

Excerpted from Heartbreaker by Maryse Meijer. Copyright ©  Maryse Meijer, 2016. Reprinted with permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Behold the Dreamers
By Imbolo Mbue

He’d never been asked to wear a suit to a job interview. Never been told to bring along a copy of his résumé. He hadn’t even owned a résumé until the previous week when he’d gone to the library on Thirty-fourth and Madison and a volunteer career counselor had written one for him, detailed his work history to suggest he was a man of grand accomplishments: farmer responsible for tilling land and growing healthy crops; street cleaner responsible for making sure the town of Limbe looked beautiful and pristine; dishwasher in Manhattan restaurant, in charge of ensuring patrons ate from clean and germ-free plates; livery cabdriver in the Bronx, responsible for taking passengers safely from place to place.

He’d never had to worry about whether his experience would be appropriate, whether his English would be perfect, whether he would succeed in coming across as intelligent enough. But today, dressed in the green double-breasted pinstripe suit he’d worn the day he entered America, his ability to impress a man he’d never met was all he could think about. Try as he might, he could do nothing but think about the questions he might be asked, the answers he would need to give, the way he would have to walk and talk and sit, the times he would need to speak or listen and nod, the things he would have to say or not say, the response he would need to give if asked about his legal status in the country. His throat went dry. His palms moistened. Unable to reach for his handkerchief in the packed downtown subway, he wiped both palms on his pants.

“Good morning, please,” he said to the security guard in the lobby when he arrived at Lehman Brothers. “My name is Jende Jonga. I am here for Mr. Edwards. Mr. Clark Edwards.”

The guard, goateed and freckled, asked for his ID, which he quickly pulled out of his brown bifold wallet. The man took it, examined it front and back, looked up at his face, looked down at his suit, smiled, and asked if he was trying to become a stockbroker or something.

Jende shook his head. “No,” he replied without smiling back. “A chauffeur.”

“Right on,” the guard said as he handed him a visitor pass. “Good luck with that.”

This time Jende smiled. “Thank you, my brother,” he said. “I really need all that good luck today.”

Alone in the elevator to the twenty-eighth floor, he inspected his fingernails (no dirt, thankfully). He adjusted his clip-on tie using the security mirror above his head; reexamined his teeth and found no visible remnants of the fried ripe plantains and beans he’d eaten for breakfast. He cleared his throat and wiped off whatever saliva had crusted on the sides of his lips. When the doors opened he straightened his shoulders and introduced himself to the receptionist, who, after responding with a nod and a display of extraordinarily white teeth, made a phone call and asked him to follow her. They walked through an open space where young men in blue shirts sat in cubicles with multiple screens, down a corridor, past another open space of cluttered cubicles and into a sunny office with a four-paneled glass window running from wall to wall and floor to ceiling, the thousand autumn-drenched trees and proud towers of Manhattan standing outside. For a second his mouth fell open, at the view outside—the likes of which he’d never seen—and the exquisiteness inside. There was a lounging section (black leather sofa, two black leather chairs, glass coffee table) to his right, an executive desk (oval, cherry, black leather reclining chair for the executive, two green leather armchairs for visitors) in the center, and a wall unit (cherry, glass doors, white folders in neat rows) to his left, in front of which Clark Edwards, in a dark suit, was standing and feeding sheets of paper into a pullout shredder.

“Please, sir, good morning,” Jende said, turning toward him and half-bowing.

“Have a seat,” Clark said without lifting his eyes from the shredder.

Jende hurried to the armchair on the left. He pulled a résumé from his folder and placed it in front of Clark’s seat, careful not to disturb the layers of white papers and Wall Street Journals strewn across the desk in a jumble. One of the Journal pages, peeking from beneath sheets of numbers and graphs, had the headline: Whites’ Great Hope? Barack Obama and the Dream of a Color-blind America.” Jende leaned forward to read the story, fascinated as he was by the young ambitious senator, but immediately sat upright when he remembered where he was, why he was there, what was about to happen.

“Do you have any outstanding tickets you need to resolve?” Clark asked as he sat down.

“No, sir,” Jende replied.

“And you haven’t been in any serious accidents, right?”

“No, Mr. Edwards.”

Clark picked up the résumé from his desk, wrinkled and moist like the man whose history it held. His eyes remained on it for several seconds while Jende’s darted back and forth, from the Central Park treetops far beyond the window to the office walls lined with abstract paintings and portraits of white men wearing bow ties. He could feel beads of sweat rising out of his forehead.

“Well, Jende,” Clark said, putting the résumé down and leaning back in his chair. “Tell me about yourself.”

Excerpted from Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue. Copyright  ©  2016 by Imbolo Mbue. Reprinted with permission of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

First Fiction 2017

by

Danzy Senna, Mira Jacob, Maggie Nelson, Emily Raboteau, Gary Shteyngart

6.14.17

For our seventeenth annual roundup of the summer’s best debut fiction, we asked five established authors to introduce this year’s group of debut writers. Read the July/August 2017 issue of the magazine for interviews between Zinzi Clemmons and Danzy Senna, Hala Alyan and Mira Jacob, Jess Arndt and Maggie Nelson, Lisa Ko and Emily Raboteau, and Diksha Basu and Gary Shteyngart. But first, check out these exclusive readings and excerpts from their debut novels.

What We Lose (Viking, July) by Zinzi Clemmons
Salt Houses (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May) by Hala Alyan
Large Animals (Catapult, May) by Jess Arndt
The Leavers (Algonquin Books, May) by Lisa Ko
The Windfall (Crown, June) by Diksha Basu
 

What We Lose
by Zinzi Clemmons

My parents’ bedroom is arranged exactly the same as it always was. The big mahogany dresser sits opposite the bed, the doily still in place on the vanity. My mother’s little ring holders and perfume bottles still stand there. On top of all these old feminine relics, my father has set up his home office. His old IBM laptop sits atop the doily, a tangle of cords choking my mother’s silver makeup tray. His books are scattered around the tables, his clothes draped carelessly over the antique wing chair that my mother found on a trip to Quebec.

In the kitchen, my father switches on a small flat-screen TV that he’s installed on the wall opposite the stove. My mother never allowed TV in the kitchen, to encourage bonding during family dinners and focus during homework time. As a matter of fact, we never had more than one television while I was growing up—an old wood-paneled set that lived in the cold basement, carefully hidden from me and visitors in the main living areas of the house.

We order Chinese from the place around the corner, the same order that we’ve made for years: sesame chicken, vegetable fried rice, shrimp lo mein. As soon as they hear my father’s voice on the line, they put in the order; he doesn’t even have to ask for it. When he picks the order up, they ask after me. When my mother died, they started giving us extra sodas with our order, and he returns with two cans of pineapple soda, my favorite.

My father tells me that he’s been organizing at work, now that he’s the only black faculty member in the upper ranks of the administration.

I notice that he has started cutting his hair differently. It is shorter on the sides and disappearing in patches around the crown of his skull. He pulls himself up in his chair with noticeable effort. He had barely aged in the past twenty years, and suddenly, in the past year, he has inched closer to looking like his father, a stooped, lean, yellow-skinned man I’ve only seen in pictures.

“How have you been, Dad?” I say as we sit at the table.

The thought of losing my father lurks constantly in my mind now, shadowy, inexpressible, but bursting to the surface when, like now, I perceive the limits of his body. Something catches in my throat and I clench my jaw.

My father says that he has been keeping busy. He has been volunteering every month at the community garden on Christian Street, turning compost and watering kale.

“And I’m starting a petition to hire another black professor,” he says, stabbing his glazed chicken with a fire I haven’t seen in him in years.

He asks about Peter.

“I’m glad you’ve found someone you like,” he says.

“Love, Dad,” I say. “We’re in love.”

He pauses, stirring his noodles quizzically with his fork. “Why aren’t you eating?” he asks.

I stare at the food in front of me. It’s the closest thing to comfort food since my mother has been gone. The unique flavor of her curries and stews buried, forever, with her. The sight of the food appeals to me, but the smell, suddenly, is noxious; the wisp of steam emanating from it, scorching.

“Are you all right?”

All of a sudden, I have the feeling that I am sinking. I feel the pressure of my skin holding in my organs and blood vessels and fluids; the tickle of every hair that covers it. The feeling is so disorienting and overwhelming that I can no longer hold my head up. I push my dinner away from me. I walk calmly but quickly to the powder room, lift the toilet seat, and throw up.

From What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons, published in July by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Zinzi Clemmons.

(Photo: Nina Subin)

Salt Houses
by Hala Alyan

On the street, she fumbles for a cigarette from her purse and smokes as she walks into the evening. She feels a sudden urge, now that she is outside the apartment, to clear her head. This is her favor­ite thing about the city—the ability it gives you to walk, to literally put space between your body and distress. In Kuwait, nobody walks anywhere.

Mimi lives in a quiet part of the city, mostly residential, with small, pretty apartments, each window like a glistening eye. The streetlamps are made of wrought iron, designs flanking either side of the bulbs. There is a minimalist sense of wealth in the neighborhood, children dressed simply, the women always adjusting scarves around their necks, their hair cut into perfectly symmetrical lines. Souad walks by the manicured lawns of a grammar school, empty and discarded for the summer. Next to it a gray-steepled church. She tries to imagine that, elsewhere, there is smoke and destroyed palaces and men carry­ing guns. It seems impossible.

The night is cool, and Souad wraps her cardigan tightly around her, crosses her arms. A shiver runs through her. She is nervous to see him, a familiar thrill that he always elicits in her. Even before last night.

Le Chat Rouge is a fifteen-minute walk from Mimi’s apartment, but within several blocks the streets begin to change, brownstones and Gothic-style latticework replaced with grungier alleyways, young Algerian men with long hair sitting on steps and drinking beer from cans. One eyes her and calls out, caressingly, something in French. She can make out the words for sweet and return. Bars line the streets with their neon signs and she walks directly across the Quartier Latin courtyard, her shoes clicking on the cobblestones.

“My mother’s going to call tomorrow,” she told Elie yesterday. She wasn’t sure why she said it, but it felt necessary. “They’re taking me to Amman.” In the near dark, Elie’s face was peculiarly lit, the sign making his skin look alien.

“You could stay here,” Elie said. He smiled mockingly. “You could get married.”

Souad had blinked, her lips still wet from the kiss. “Married?” She wasn’t being coy—she truthfully had no idea what Elie meant. Mar­ried to whom? For a long, awful moment, she thought Elie was sug­gesting she marry one of the other Lebanese men, that he was fob­bing her off on a friend in pity.

“Yes.” Elie cocked his head, as though gauging the authenticity of her confusion. He smiled again, kinder this time. He closed his fingers around hers so that she was making a fist and he a larger one atop it. They both watched their hands silently for a few seconds, an awkward pose, more confrontational than romantic, as though he were preventing her from delivering a blow. It occurred to her that he was having a difficult time speaking. She felt her palm itch but didn’t move. Elie cleared his throat, and when he spoke, she had to lean in to hear him.

“You could marry me.”

Now, even in re-creating that moment, Souad feels the swoop in her stomach, her mouth drying. It is a thing she wants in the dark­est, most furtive way, not realizing how badly until it was said aloud. Eighteen years old, a voice within her spoke, eighteen. Too young, too young. And her parents, her waiting life.

But the greater, arrogant part of Souad’s self growled as if wo­ken. Her steps clacked with her want of it. The self swelled trium­phantly—Shame, shame, she admonishes herself, thinking of the war, the invasion, the troops and fire, but she is delighted nonetheless.

From Salt Houses by Hala Alyan. Copyright © 2017 by Hala Alyan. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

(Photo: Beowulf Sheehan)

Large Animals
by Jess Arndt

In my sleep I was plagued by large animals—teams of grizzlies, timber wolves, gorillas even came in and out of the mist. Once the now extinct northern white rhino also stopped by. But none of them came as often or with such a ferocious sexual charge as what I, mangling Latin and English as usual, called the Walri. Lying there, I faced them as you would the inevitable. They were massive, tube-shaped, sometimes the feeling was only flesh and I couldn’t see the top of the cylinder that masqueraded as a head or tusks or eyes. Nonetheless I knew I was in their presence intuitively. There was no mistaking their skin; their smell was unmistakable too, as was their awful weight.

During these nights (the days seemed to disappear before they even started) I was living two miles from a military testing site. In the early morning and throughout the day the soft, dense sound of bombs filled the valley. It was comforting somehow. Otherwise I was entirely alone.

This seemed a precondition for the Walri—that I should be theirs and theirs only. on the rare occasion that I had an overnight visitor to my desert bungalow the Walri were never around. Then the bears would return in force, maybe even a large local animal like a mountain lion or goat, but no form’s density came close to walrusness. So I became wary and stopped inviting anyone out to visit at all.

The days, unmemorable, had a kind of habitual slide. I would wake up with the sun and begin cleaning the house. No matter how tightly I’d kept the doors shut the day before, dust and sand and even large pieces of mineral rock seemed to shove  their way inside. I swept these into piles. Then the dishes that I barely remembered dirtying—some mornings it was as if the whole artillery of pots and pans had been used in the night by someone else—then the trash (again always full), then some coffee. Eight o’clock.

This work done, I sat in various chairs in the house following the bright but pale blades of light. I was drying out. oh, an LA friend said somewhat knowingly, from the booze? But I had alcohol with me, plenty of it. It wasn’t that. I moved as if preprogrammed. only later did I realize that my sleep was so soggy that it took strong desert sun to unshrivel me and since it was the middle of winter and the beams were perforce slanted, I’d take all of it I could find.

For lunch I got in my car and drove into town, to the empty parking lot of Las Palmas. There were many Mexican joints along the highway that also functioned as Main Street. I hadn’t bothered to try them out. Las Palmas, with its vacant booths, dusty cacti, and combination platter lunch special for $11.99 including $4 house margarita, was fine.

A waitress named Tamara worked there. She seemed like the only one. She wasn’t my type—so tall she bent over herself and a bona fide chain-smoker. Sometimes to order you’d have to exit your booth and find her puffing outside. A friend who had borrowed the bungalow before I did told me about Tamara and so if I had a crush at all it was an inherited one that even came with inherited guilt—from having taken her on once he could no longer visit her. Regardless, we barely spoke.

I had things I was supposed to be doing, more work than I could accomplish even if I
duct-taped my fists to my laptop, but none of it seemed relevant to my current state. In the afternoons I drove back home slowly, always stopping for six-packs of beer at the Circle K. I enjoyed the task. The beer evaporated once I stuck it in my fridge—it was there and then, it was gone.

My sleeping area was simple: a bed on a plywood platform. A wooden dresser. Built-in closets and a cement floor. At first  I would wake up in the night from the sheer flattening silence of the desert. It was impossible that the world still existed elsewhere. After that initial jolt, relief.

Don’t you miss it? my same friend said during our weekly telephone chats. But I couldn’t explain the euphoria of walking up and down the chilly aisles of Stater Bros. In week-old sweatpants if I wanted, uncounted by life. Would I buy refried or whole beans? This brand or that? It didn’t matter, no one cared.

It was in these conditions that the Walri arrived.

* * * 

I’d slept as usual for the first few hours, heavily, in a kind of coma state. Then had woken, I thought to pee. But lying there with the gritty sheets braided around me, the violet light that was created from the fly zapper, the desert cold that was entering through the gaps and cracks in the fire’s absence—I felt a new form of suffocation.

It wasn’t supernatural. I’d also had that. The sense of someone’s vast weight sitting on the bed with you or patting your body with ghostly hands. This breathless feeling was larger, as if I was uniformly surrounded by mammoth flesh.

Dream parts snagged at me. Slapping sounds and hose-like alien respiration. I felt I was wrestling within inches of what must be—since I couldn’t breathe—the end of my life. Now the lens of my dream panned backward and I saw my opponent in his entirety.

He lay (if that’s what you could call it) on my bed, thick and wrinkled, the creases in his hide so deep I could stick my arms between them. His teeth were yellow and as long as my legs.

“I’m sexually dormant,” I said aloud to him. “But I want to put my balls in someone’s face.”

Then somehow light was peeling everything back for dawn.

From Large Animals. Used with permission of Catapult. Copyright 2017 by Jess Arndt.

(Photo: Johanna Breiding)

The Leavers
by Lisa Ko

The day before Deming Guo saw his mother for the last time, she surprised him at school. A navy blue hat sat low on her forehead, scarf around her neck like a big brown snake. “What are you waiting for, Kid? It’s cold out.”

He stood in the doorway of P.S. 33 as she zipped his coat so hard the collar pinched. “Did you get off work early?” It was four thirty, already dark, but she didn’t usually leave the nail salon until six.

They spoke, as always, in Fuzhounese. “Short shift. Michael said you had to stay late to get help on an assignment.” Her eyes narrowed behind her glasses, and he couldn’t tell if she bought it or not. Teachers didn’t call your mom when you got detention, only gave a form you had to return with a signature, which he forged. Michael, who never got detention, had left after eighth period, and Deming wanted to get back home with him, in front of the television, where, in the safety of a laugh track, he didn’t have to worry about letting anyone down.

Snow fell like clots of wet laundry. Deming and his mother walked up Jerome Avenue. In the back of a concrete courtyard three older boys were passing a blunt, coats unzipped, wearing neither backpacks nor hats, sweet smoke and slow laughter warming the thin February air. “I don’t want you to be like that,” she said. “I don’t want you to be like me. I didn’t even finish eighth grade.”

What a sweet idea, not finishing eighth grade. He could barely finish fifth. His teachers said it was an issue of focus, of not applying himself. Yet when he tripped Travis Bhopa in math class Deming had been as shocked as Travis was. “I’ll come to your school tomorrow,” his mother said, “talk to your teacher about that assignment.” He kept his arm against his mother’s, loved the scratchy sound of their jackets rubbing together. She wasn’t one of those TV moms, always hugging their kids or watching them with bemused smiles, but insisted on holding his hand when they crossed a busy street. Inside her gloves her hands were red and scraped, the skin angry and peeling, and every night before she went to sleep she rubbed a thick lotion onto her fingers and winced. Once he asked if it made them hurt less. She said only for a little while, and he wished there was a special lotion that could make new skin grow, a pair of superpower gloves.

Short and blocky, she wore loose jeans—never had he seen her in a dress—and her voice was so loud that when she called his name dogs would bark and other kids jerked around. When she saw his last report card he thought her shouting would set off the car alarms four stories below. But her laughter was as loud as her shouting, and there was no better, more gratifying sound than when she slapped her knees and cackled at something silly. She laughed at things that weren’t meant to be funny, like TV dramas and the swollen orchestral soundtracks that accompanied them, or, better yet, at things Deming said, like when he nailed the way their neighbor Tommie always went, “Not bad-not bad-not bad” when they passed him in the stairwell, an automatic response to a “Hello-how-are-you” that hadn’t yet been issued. Or the time she’d asked, flipping through TV stations, “Dancing with the Stars isn’t on?” and he had excavated Michael’s old paper mobile of the solar system and waltzed with it through the living room as she clapped. It was almost as good as getting cheered on by his friends.

When he had lived in Minjiang with his grandfather, Deming’s mother had explored New York by herself. There was a restlessness to her, an inability to be still or settled. She jiggled her legs, bounced her knees, cracked her knuckles, twirled her thumbs. She hated being cooped up in the apartment on a sunny day, paced the rooms from wall to wall to wall, a cigarette dangling from her mouth. “Who wants to go for a walk?” she would say. Her boyfriend Leon would tell her to relax, sit down. “Sit down? We’ve been sitting all day!” Deming would want to stay on the couch with Michael, but he couldn’t say no to her and they’d go out, no family but each other. He would have her to himself, an ambling walk in the park or along the river, making up stories about who lived in the apartments they saw from the outside—a family named Smith, five kids, father dead, mother addicted to bagels, he speculated the day they went to the Upper East Side. “To bagels?” she said. “What flavor bagel?” “Everything bagels,” he said, which made her giggle harder, until they were both bent over on Madison Avenue, laughing so hard no sounds were coming out, and his stomach hurt but he couldn’t stop laughing, old white people giving them stink eye for stopping in the middle of the sidewalk. Deming and his mother loved everything bagels, the sheer balls of it, the New York audacity that a bagel could proclaim to be everything, even if it was only topped with sesame seeds and poppy seeds and salt.

A bus lumbered past, spraying slush. The walk sign flashed on. “You know what I did today?” his mother said. “One lady, she had a callus the size of your nose on her heel. I had to scrape all that dead skin off. It took forever. And her tip was shit. You’ll never do that, if you’re careful.”

He dreaded this familiar refrain. His mother could curse, but the one time he’d let motherfucker bounce out in front of her, loving the way the syllables got meatbally in his mouth, she had slapped his arm and said he was better than that. Now he silently said the word to himself as he walked, one syllable per footstep.

“Did you think that when I was growing up, a small girl your age, I thought: hey, one day, I’m going to come all the way to New York so I can pick gao gao out of a stranger’s toe? That was not my plan.”

Always be prepared, she liked to say. Never rely on anyone else to give you things you could get yourself. She despised laziness, softness, people who were weak. She had few friends, but was true to the ones she had. She could hold a fierce grudge, would walk an extra three blocks to another grocery store because, two years ago, a cashier at the one around the corner had smirked at her lousy English. It was lousy, Deming agreed.

From The Leavers. Printed by permission of Algonquin Books. Copyright © 2017 by Lisa Ko.

(Photo: Bartosz Potocki)
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The Windfall
by Diksha Basu

The following week, on an unusually overcast September day, Mr. Jha pulled into the quiet lane of his new Gurgaon home. He had never been here by himself, he realized. Mrs. Jha was usually with him, and this summer Rupak had come with them a few times, and there were all the contractors and painters and builders buzzing around, working. He had never really appreciated the silence and the greenery before. Gurgaon felt still while the rest of Delhi throbbed.

The air was heavy with heat and the promise of rain. On the radio, a Bon Jovi song played. “It’s been raining since you left me,” the lyrics said. How funny, Mr. Jha thought. An Indian song would have to say, “It hasn’t rained since you left me.” Unless, of course, you were happy that they left you.

An electronic shoe-polishing machine in a large box was on the passenger seat of his Mercedes. He had strapped it in with the seat belt. It was beautiful. And it was expensive. It was not a planned purchase. This morning he had a breakfast meeting with two young men who were launching a website that would help you find handymen around Delhi, and they asked him to join their team as a consultant. He declined. He did not have time to take on any new work until they were done moving homes. And then they had to visit Rupak, so he was not going to have any free time until November or December. And then it would be the holiday season, so really it was best if he took the rest of the year off work.

The meeting was over breakfast at the luxurious Teresa’s Hotel in Connaught Place in central Delhi, and after filling himself up with mini croissants, fruit tarts, sliced cheeses, salami, coffee, and orange juice, Mr. Jha went for a stroll through the lobby and the other restaurants in the hotel. All the five-star hotels in the center of town were little oases of calm and cool. Mr. Jha was walking by the large windows that overlooked the swimming pool that was for guests only when he thought he would book a two-night stay here. He knew his wife loved the indulgence of nice hotels and he had recently read about what youngsters were calling a staycation—a vacation where you don’t leave the city or the home you usually live in, but you give yourself a few days to take a holiday. Of course, since he didn’t work much anymore, most days, weeks, months were a staycation, but how wonderful it would be to check into a hotel and have a lazy few days. Having room service—or, like they were called at Teresa’s, butlers—was a different sort of pleasure than having servants bringing you food and cleaning your home. Butlers showed that you had made the progression from servants to expensive appliances to uniformed men who ran the expensive appliances.

From The Windfall, published by Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, in June. Copyright © 2017 by Diksha Basu.

(Photo: Mikey McCleary)

First Fiction 2016

by

Staff

6.14.16

For our sixteenth annual roundup of the summer’s best debut fiction, we asked five established authors to introduce this year’s group of debut writers. Read the July/August 2016 issue of the magazine for interviews between Yaa Gyasi and Angela Flournoy, Masande Ntshanga and Naomi Jackson, Rumaan Alam and Emma Straub, Maryse Meijer and Lindsay Hunter, and Imbolo Mbue and Christina Baker Kline. But first, check out these exclusive readings and excerpts from their debut novels.

Homegoing (Knopf, June) by Yaa Gyasi
The Reactive (Two Dollar Radio, June) by Masande Ntshanga
Rich and Pretty (Ecco, June) by Rumaan Alam
Heartbreaker (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, July) by Maryse Meijer
Behold the Dreamers (Random House, August) by Imbolo Mbue

 

Homegoing
By Yaa Gyasi

The night Effia Otcher was born into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods just outside her father’s compound. It moved quickly, tearing a path for days. It lived off the air; it slept in caves and hid in trees; it burned, up and through, unconcerned with what wreckage it left behind, until it reached an Asante village. There, it disappeared, becoming one with the night.

Effia’s father, Cobbe Otcher, left his first wife, Baaba, with the new baby so that he might survey the damage to his yams, that most precious crop known far and wide to sustain families. Cobbe had lost seven yams, and he felt each loss as a blow to his own family. He knew then that the memory of the fire that burned, then fled, would haunt him, his children, and his children’s children for as long as the line continued. When he came back into Baaba’s hut to find Effia, the child of the night’s fire, shrieking into the air, he looked at his wife and said, “We will never again speak of what happened today.”

The villagers began to say that the baby was born of the fire, that this was the reason Baaba had no milk. Effia was nursed by Cobbe’s second wife, who had just given birth to a son three months before. Effia would not latch on, and when she did, her sharp gums would tear at the flesh around the woman’s nipples until she became afraid to feed the baby. Because of this, Effia grew thinner, skin on small bird- like bones, with a large black hole of a mouth that expelled a hungry crywhich could be heard throughout the village, even on the days Baaba did her best to smother it, covering the baby’s lips with the rough palm of her left hand.

“Love her,” Cobbe commanded, as though love were as simple an act as lifting food up from an iron plate and past one’s lips. At night, Baaba dreamed of leaving the baby in the dark forest so that the god Nyame could do with her as he pleased.

Effia grew older. The summer after her third birthday, Baaba had her first son. The boy’s name was Fiifi, and he was so fat that some- times, when Baaba wasn’t looking, Effia would roll him along the ground like a ball. The first day that Baaba let Effia hold him, she accidentally dropped him. The baby bounced on his buttocks, landed on his stomach, and looked up at everyone in the room, confused as to whether or not he should cry. He decided against it, but Baaba, who had been stirring banku, lifted her stirring stick and beat Effia across her bare back. Each time the stick lifted off the girl’s body, it would leave behind hot, sticky pieces of banku that burned into her flesh. By the time Baaba had finished, Effia was covered with sores, screaming and crying. From the floor, rolling this way and that on his belly, Fiifi looked at Effia with his saucer eyes but made no noise.

Cobbe came home to find his other wives attending to Effia’s wounds and understood immediately what had happened. He and Baaba fought well into the night. Effia could hear them through the thin walls of the hut where she lay on the floor, drifting in and out of a feverish sleep. In her dream, Cobbe was a lion and Baaba was a tree. The lion plucked the tree from the ground where it stood and slammed it back down. The tree stretched its branches in protest, and the lion ripped them off, one by one. The tree, horizontal, began to cry red ants that traveled down the thin cracks between its bark. The ants pooled on the soft earth around the top of the tree trunk.

And so the cycle began. Baaba beat Effia. Cobbe beat Baaba. By the time Effia had reached age ten, she could recite a history of the scars on her body. The summer of 1764, when Baaba broke yams across her back. The spring of 1767, when Baaba bashed her left foot with a rock, breaking her big toe so that it now always pointed away from the other toes. For each scar on Effia’s body, there was a companion scar on Baaba’ s, but that didn’t stop mother from beating daughter, father from beating mother.

Matters were only made worse by Effia’s blossoming beauty. When she was twelve, her breasts arrived, two lumps that sprung from her chest, as soft as mango flesh. The men of the village knew that first blood would soon follow, and they waited for the chance to ask Baaba and Cobbe for her hand. The gifts started. One man tapped palm wine better than anyone else in the village, but another’s fishing nets were never empty. Cobbe’s family feasted off Effia’s burgeoning woman- hood. Their bellies, their hands, were never empty.

Excerpted from HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi. Copyright © 2016 by Yaa Gyasi. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

The Reactive
By Masande Ntshanga

The way I got to know them, by the way, my two closest friends here, is that we met at one of the new HIV and drug-counseling sessions cropping up all over the city. We were in the basement parking lot of the free clinic in Wynberg. The seminar room upstairs had been locked up and taped shut, there’d been a mer­cury spill, and our group couldn’t meet in there on account of the vapors being toxic to human tissue. Instead, they arranged us in the basement parking lot, and in two weeks we got used to not being sent upstairs for meetings. I did, in any case, and that was enough for me in the beginning.

In those days, I attended the meetings alone. I’d catch a taxi from Obs over to Wynberg for an afternoon’s worth of coun­seling. By the end of my first month, when the seminar room had been swept once, and then twice, and then three times by a short man who wore a blue contamination meter over his chest, each time checking out clean, everyone decided they preferred it down below, and so that’s where we stayed.

Maybe we all want to be buried here, I said.

It had been the first time I’d spoken in group. Talking always took me a while, back then, but the remark succeeded in making a few of them laugh. It won me chuckles even from the old-timers, and later, I wrote down my first addiction story to share with the group. It was from a film I saw adapted from a book I wasn’t likely to read. Ruan and Cissie arrived on the following Wednesday.

I noticed them immediately. Something seemed to draw us in from our first meeting. In the parking lot, we eyeballed each other for a while before we spoke. During the coffee break, we stood by the serving table in front of a peeling Toyota bakkie, mumbling tentatively towards each other’s profiles. I learned that Cecelia was a teacher. She pulled week-long shifts at a day­care center just off Bridge Street in Mowbray, and she was there on account of the school’s accepting its first openly positive pupil. Ruan, who was leaning against the plastic table, gulping more than sipping at the coffee in his paper cup, said that he suffocated through his life by working on the top floor of his uncle’s computer firm. He was there to shop for a social issue they could use for their corporate responsibility strategy. He called it CRS, and Cissie and I had to ask him what he meant.

In the end, I guess I was impressed. I told them how I used to be a lab assistant at Peninsula Tech, and how in a way this was part of how I’d got to be sick with what I have.

When we sat back down again, we listened to the rest of the members assess each other’s nightmares. They passed them around with a familiar casualness. Mark knew about Ronelle’s school fees, for instance, and she knew about Linette’s hepatitis, and all of us knew that Linda had developed a spate of genital warts over September. She called them water warts, when she first told us, and, like most of her symptoms, she blamed them on the rain.

That day, when the discussion turned to drug abuse, as it always did during the last half-hour of our sessions, the three of us had nothing to add. I looked over at Ruan and caught him stashing a grin behind his fist, while on my other side, Cecelia blinked up at the ceiling. I didn’t need any more evidence for our kinship.

The meeting lasted the full two hours, and when it came to an end, I collected my proof of attendance and exchanged num­bers with Ruan and Cecelia. I suppose we said our goodbyes at the entrance of the parking lot that day, and later, within that same week I think, we were huffing paint thinner together in my flat in Obs.

Excerpted from The Reactive by Masande Ntshanga. Copyright  ©  2016 by Masande Ntshanga. Excerpted by permission of Two Dollar Radio. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

 Rich and Pretty
By Rumaan Alam

Lauren’s office is freezing. You could keep butter on the desk. You could perform surgery. Every woman in the office—they’re all women—keeps a cashmere sweater on the back of her chair. They sit, hands outstretched over computer keyboards like a bum’s over a flaming garbage can. The usual office noises: typing, telephones, people using indoor voices, the double ding of an elevator going down. For some reason, the double ding of the elevator going down is louder than the single ding of the elevator going up. There’s a metaphor in there, waiting to be untangled. They make cookbooks, these women. There’s no food, just stacks of paper and editorial assistants in glasses. She’s worked here for four years. It’s fine.

Today is different because today there’s a guy, an actual dude, in the office with them, not a photographer or stylist popping by for a meeting, as does happen: He’s
a temp, because Kristen is having a baby and her doctor put her on bed rest. Lauren isn’t totally clear on what Kristen does, but now there’s a dude doing it. He’s wearing a button-down shirt and jeans, and loafers, not sneakers, which implies a certain maturity. Lauren’s been trying to get him to notice her all day. She’s the second-prettiest woman in the office, so it isn’t hard. Hannah, the prettiest, has a vacant quality about her. She’s not stupid, exactly—in fact, she’s very competent—but she doesn’t have spark. She’s not interesting, just thin and blond, with heavy eyeglasses and a photograph of her French bulldog on her computer screen.

Lauren has it all planned out. She’ll walk past his desk a couple of times, which isn’t suspicious because his desk isn’t far from the kitchen, and the kitchen is where the coffee is, and by the third time, he’ll follow her in there, and she’ll make a wisecrack about the coffee, and he’ll say it’s not so bad, and they’ll talk, and exchange phone numbers, e-mail addresses, whatever, and then later they’ll leave the office at the same time, ride down together in the elevator and not talk because they both understand that the social contract dictates that sane people do not talk in elevators, and then he’ll let her go through the revolving door first, even though she’s pretty sure that etiquette has it that men precede women through revolving doors, and then they’ll both be standing on Broadway, and there will be traffic and that vague smell of charred, ethnic meat from the guy with the lunch cart on the corner, and he’ll suggest they get a drink, and she’ll say sure, and they’ll go to the Irish pub on Fifty-Fifth Street, because there’s nowhere else to go, and after two drinks they’ll be starving, and he’ll suggest they get dinner, but there’s nowhere to eat in this part of town, so they’ll take the train to Union Square and realize there’s nowhere to eat there either, and they’ll walk down into the East Village and find something, maybe ramen, or that Moroccan-y place that she always forgets she likes, and they’ll eat, and they’ll start touching each other, casually but deliberately, carefully, and the check will come and she’ll say let’s split it, and he’ll say no let me, even though he’s a temp and can’t make that much money, right? Then they’ll be drunk, so taking a cab seems wise and they’ll make out in the backseat, but just a little bit, and kind of laugh about it, too: stop to check their phones, or admire the view, or so he can explain that he lives with a roommate or a dog, or so she can tell him some stupid story about work that won’t mean anything to him anyway because it’s only his first day and he doesn’t know anyone’s name, let alone their personality quirks and the complexities of the office’s political and social ecosystem.

Then he’ll pay the driver, because they’ll go to his place—she doesn’t want to bring the temp back to her place—and it’ll be nice, or fine, or ugly, and he’ll open beers because all he has are beers, and she’ll pretend to drink hers even though she’s had enough, and he’ll excuse himself for a minute to go to the bathroom, but really it’s to brush his teeth, piss, maybe rub some wet toilet paper around his ass and under his balls. This is something Gabe had told her, years ago, that men do this, or at least, that he did. Unerotic, but somehow touching. Then the temp will come sit next to her on the couch, please let it be a couch and not a futon, and he’ll play with her hair a little before he kisses her, his mouth minty, hers beery. He’ll be out of his shirt, then, and he’s hard and hairy, but also a little soft at the belly, which she likes. She once slept with this guy Sean, whose torso, hairless and lean, freaked her out. It was like having sex with a female mannequin. The temp will push or pull her into his bedroom, just the right balance of aggression and respect, and the room will be fine, or ugly, and the bedsheets will be navy, as men’s bedsheets always are, and there will be venetian blinds, and lots of books on the nightstand because he’s temping at a publishing company so he must love to read. She’ll tug her shirt over her head, and he’ll pull at her bra, and they’ll be naked, and he’ll fumble around for a condom, and his dick will be long but not, crucially, thick, and it will be good, and then it will be over. They’ll laugh about how this whole thing is against the company’s sexual harassment policy. She’ll try to cover herself with the sheet, and he’ll do the same, suddenly embarrassed by his smaller, slightly sticky dick. When he’s out of the room, to get a beer, to piss, whatever, she’ll get dressed. He’ll call her a car service, because there are no yellow cabs wherever he lives. They’ll both spend the part of the night right before they fall asleep trying to figure out how to act around each other in the office tomorrow.

Or maybe not that. Maybe she’ll find a way to go up to him and say, what, exactly, Hey, do you like parties? Do you want to go to a party . . . tonight? No, the jeans and tie are fine. It’s not fancy. A party. A good party. Good open bar, for sure. Probably canapés, what are canapés exactly, whatever they are, there will probably be some. Last party, there were these balls of cornbread and shrimp, like deep fried, holy shit they were great. That was last year, I think. Anyway, there might be celebrities there. There will definitely be celebrities there. I once saw Bill Clinton at one of these parties. He’s skinnier than you’d think. Anyway, think about it, it’ll be a time, and by the way, I’m Lauren, I’m an associate editor here and you are? She can picture his conversation, the words coming to her so easily, as they do in fantasy but never in reality. They call it meeting cute, in movies, but it only happens in movies.

From Rich and Pretty by Rumaan Alam. Copyright © 2016 by Rumaan Alam. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Heartbreaker
By Maryse Meijer

Daddy comes over on Thursdays. My husband and son are out watching movies where people blow each other up. They have burgers afterward and buf- falo wings and milkshakes and they talk about  TV shows and girls and the latest bloody video game. At least that’s what I imagine they do. No way do they imagine what I am doing, sitting here at the kitchen table doing my math homework as Daddy microwaves the mac and cheese he brought over. We have three hours together and in these three hours I am twelve years old and my daddy is the most wonderful man in the world.

On craigslist I post the photo from my work website, the one with my hair scraped back in a ponytail, expos- ing my shiny forehead, my thin lips, my arms bursting from the sleeves of my blue blouse. Daughter seeks Father is all I write as a caption. In response I receive an avalanche of cell-phone numbers, chat invitations, and penis pics lifted from porn sites.

I delete all the emails except for Richard’s: Sweetheart, please call home. I sit for a moment hunched in my cubicle, sweating, before lifting the receiver and dialing his number.

Daddy? I whisper, hand up to cover my mouth so no one walking by can see it moving.

He doesn’t skip a beat. Sweetheart! he says. Did you see the photo? I ask.

Of course, he says.

I’m not better in person, I warn. You’re perfect, he assures me.

I’m married, I tell him. I have a kid. No problem, he insists.

I chew the inside of my cheek. There’s not going to be any sex, I say.

Absolutely not! he agrees.

I wait for him to say something creepy or disgusting, but he doesn’t. We make arrangements to meet at McDonald’s for dinner on Thursday.

Don’t kill me, I say, and he laughs.

Oh sweetheart, he says. What on earth?

I’m  early. I don’t  know what Daddy looks like and every time the door swings open my head jerks like a ball on a string. I convince myself I’m going to be stood up and that it will be better anyway if I am. But at seven on the dot he enters and he looks straight at me and waves.

Our usual, sweetheart?  he says, loud enough for other people to hear, and I nod. He brings a tray of chicken nugget combos to my table. He kisses my cheek. The food steams in our hands as we look at each other; he seems about twenty, twenty-two, with chinos frayed at the bottoms and red hair and glasses and biceps as skinny as my wrist. Maybe someday he will be good- looking.

Extra barbecue sauce, just the way you like, he says, gesturing to my nuggets. I smile and take a bite. He asks me about school and I ask him about work and he is as interested in how I’m doing in gym class as I am in the stocks he’s trading at the office; we slip into our new roles as easily as knives into butter.

I almost forgot, he says. He reaches into the pocket of his jacket and pulls out a CD with a Christmas bow stuck on it. Just a little something, he adds, and hands it to me. I unstick the bow and turn the CD over in my hands: Britney Spears. I bounce, once, and my left butt cheek, which doesn’t quite fit on the plastic chair, bangs on the edge of the seat.

Oh Daddy, I say, touched because I k now he went into a store and asked what would be the right thing to get for his little girl, and he paid for it with his own money and put it in his pocket and found  the gaudy bow to go with it and then brought it all the way here, to me, because he k new he would like me and already wanted to give me something, and this makes me want to give everything I have to him in return.

Apart from  Thursday nights—and it’s  always Thurs- days, always nights—we don’t communicate, except by email. Sometimes he’ll send me a note just to say, Have a great day!! or he’ll tell me what plans he has for dinner: Working late need a treat pizza sound  good??? or he’ll hint at imagined happenings in my little-girl life: Don’t forget dentist today xoxoxoxo!! and Good luck on the history quiz I know you’ll do awesome!!!! I write back in equally breathless terms to report the results of the history quiz or the number of cavities rotting my teeth or to squeal over the impending pizza feast. These exchanges give me a high so intense my chest muscles spasm and when my boss calls and says to bring her such-and-such a document I hit print and out comes an email from Daddy, not the work document, and I giggle into my hand and hit print again.

He always arrives exactly fifteen minutes after my hus- band and son leave. I sit on the couch with the televi- sion on while he fumbles with the keys and the empty banged-up briefcase he always brings. Sweetheart! he says when he enters, and I yelp Daddy! and if I was maybe ten or twenty or, okay, thirty pounds lighter, I might run toward him, but as it is I wait on the couch for him to come over and k iss my hair. I’ll pour him a soda on the rocks and he’ll  pour  me some milk and we touch glasses and smile. If my husband calls I stand by the back door with my head down and say Uh-huh, yes, fine, all right, see you soon, no, nothing for me, thanks, I’m enjoying the leftovers, have fun, love you.

Excerpted from Heartbreaker by Maryse Meijer. Copyright ©  Maryse Meijer, 2016. Reprinted with permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Behold the Dreamers
By Imbolo Mbue

He’d never been asked to wear a suit to a job interview. Never been told to bring along a copy of his résumé. He hadn’t even owned a résumé until the previous week when he’d gone to the library on Thirty-fourth and Madison and a volunteer career counselor had written one for him, detailed his work history to suggest he was a man of grand accomplishments: farmer responsible for tilling land and growing healthy crops; street cleaner responsible for making sure the town of Limbe looked beautiful and pristine; dishwasher in Manhattan restaurant, in charge of ensuring patrons ate from clean and germ-free plates; livery cabdriver in the Bronx, responsible for taking passengers safely from place to place.

He’d never had to worry about whether his experience would be appropriate, whether his English would be perfect, whether he would succeed in coming across as intelligent enough. But today, dressed in the green double-breasted pinstripe suit he’d worn the day he entered America, his ability to impress a man he’d never met was all he could think about. Try as he might, he could do nothing but think about the questions he might be asked, the answers he would need to give, the way he would have to walk and talk and sit, the times he would need to speak or listen and nod, the things he would have to say or not say, the response he would need to give if asked about his legal status in the country. His throat went dry. His palms moistened. Unable to reach for his handkerchief in the packed downtown subway, he wiped both palms on his pants.

“Good morning, please,” he said to the security guard in the lobby when he arrived at Lehman Brothers. “My name is Jende Jonga. I am here for Mr. Edwards. Mr. Clark Edwards.”

The guard, goateed and freckled, asked for his ID, which he quickly pulled out of his brown bifold wallet. The man took it, examined it front and back, looked up at his face, looked down at his suit, smiled, and asked if he was trying to become a stockbroker or something.

Jende shook his head. “No,” he replied without smiling back. “A chauffeur.”

“Right on,” the guard said as he handed him a visitor pass. “Good luck with that.”

This time Jende smiled. “Thank you, my brother,” he said. “I really need all that good luck today.”

Alone in the elevator to the twenty-eighth floor, he inspected his fingernails (no dirt, thankfully). He adjusted his clip-on tie using the security mirror above his head; reexamined his teeth and found no visible remnants of the fried ripe plantains and beans he’d eaten for breakfast. He cleared his throat and wiped off whatever saliva had crusted on the sides of his lips. When the doors opened he straightened his shoulders and introduced himself to the receptionist, who, after responding with a nod and a display of extraordinarily white teeth, made a phone call and asked him to follow her. They walked through an open space where young men in blue shirts sat in cubicles with multiple screens, down a corridor, past another open space of cluttered cubicles and into a sunny office with a four-paneled glass window running from wall to wall and floor to ceiling, the thousand autumn-drenched trees and proud towers of Manhattan standing outside. For a second his mouth fell open, at the view outside—the likes of which he’d never seen—and the exquisiteness inside. There was a lounging section (black leather sofa, two black leather chairs, glass coffee table) to his right, an executive desk (oval, cherry, black leather reclining chair for the executive, two green leather armchairs for visitors) in the center, and a wall unit (cherry, glass doors, white folders in neat rows) to his left, in front of which Clark Edwards, in a dark suit, was standing and feeding sheets of paper into a pullout shredder.

“Please, sir, good morning,” Jende said, turning toward him and half-bowing.

“Have a seat,” Clark said without lifting his eyes from the shredder.

Jende hurried to the armchair on the left. He pulled a résumé from his folder and placed it in front of Clark’s seat, careful not to disturb the layers of white papers and Wall Street Journals strewn across the desk in a jumble. One of the Journal pages, peeking from beneath sheets of numbers and graphs, had the headline: Whites’ Great Hope? Barack Obama and the Dream of a Color-blind America.” Jende leaned forward to read the story, fascinated as he was by the young ambitious senator, but immediately sat upright when he remembered where he was, why he was there, what was about to happen.

“Do you have any outstanding tickets you need to resolve?” Clark asked as he sat down.

“No, sir,” Jende replied.

“And you haven’t been in any serious accidents, right?”

“No, Mr. Edwards.”

Clark picked up the résumé from his desk, wrinkled and moist like the man whose history it held. His eyes remained on it for several seconds while Jende’s darted back and forth, from the Central Park treetops far beyond the window to the office walls lined with abstract paintings and portraits of white men wearing bow ties. He could feel beads of sweat rising out of his forehead.

“Well, Jende,” Clark said, putting the résumé down and leaning back in his chair. “Tell me about yourself.”

Excerpted from Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue. Copyright  ©  2016 by Imbolo Mbue. Reprinted with permission of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

An Alaska Retreat for Women Writers

by

Amy Pence

2.12.20

Mystery writer Dana Stabenow spent last summer watching cabins and a main house take shape amid a meadow of violet lupines in Homer, Alaska. The construction realized a dream several years in the making: In 2012, Stabenow decided to dedicate six of the ten acres she owns to the project of fostering women’s writing by building a new retreat set against the dramatic backdrop of the Aleutian mountain range’s snow-capped volcanoes. This April her vision comes to fruition as the Storyknife Writers Retreat opens its doors to its first group of resident writers.

Situated just north of Homer’s Kachemak Bay and overlooking the arctic blues of Cook Inlet, the Storyknife Writers Retreat will provide what executive director Erin Hollowell calls “the big vista mental space” for forty-two established and emerging women writers a year. Six woman-identified or nonbinary writers at a time will be served evening meals at the main house and will lunch, work, and sleep in sponsored cabins named Carol, Betty, Diana, Evangeline, Katie, and Peggy. Their sole duty is to write during a two- or four-week fully-funded stay. The first group of residents in the new space—Stabenow piloted Storyknife with earlier retreats in a guest cabin—have already been selected; applications for the 2021 season will open later this year. 

Storyknife follows the example of Hedgebrook, the Whidbey Island, Washington retreat that is one of the only other residencies in the United States strictly for women writers. Stabenow knows the power of such residencies: She credits Hedgebrook and the “radical hospitality” of its founder, Nancy Skinner Nordhoff, for helping launch her career. 

Thirty years ago Stabenow quit her oil-pipeline communications job, earned her MFA, and gave herself a year to become a published writer. Katherine Gottlieb, her childhood friend, now a public health leader for native communities, pestered her to apply to Hedgebrook. Fortunately, Stabenow listened. “Hedgebrook made me a writer. I drew inspiration from the other writers, the natural landscape where each cottage stood, the very fact that we were told not to lift a finger. Our only commitment was to write. It was life-changing.” Stabenow sold her first book shortly thereafter, then launched her Kate Shugak series with the tough and vulnerable Aleut PI at the series’ center, now twenty-two books strong. Soon thereafter, in 1993, she won a coveted Edgar Award. She has since published close to forty books. 

Storyknife’s name was inspired by the carved ivory knife brooch that Gottlieb, part Sugpiaq and a tribal member, gave Stabenow at the Edgar Awards ceremony. Traditionally given to young girls by their Central Yup’ik elders to sketch their stories in snow, the storyknife is, for Stabenow, emblematic of the gift culture that has fired the literary nonprofit. In addition to the land Stabenow has deeded to the organization, in just three years donors have contributed $1,250,000, the entire budget for construction. Hollowell says, “Over 375 individuals and more than a handful of foundations have come together to form the community of Storyknife because they understand that women’s stories are important and that women’s writing deserves to be supported.” Notable champions of Storyknife include the Atwood Foundation, Old Harbor Native Corporation, and the Rasmuson Foundation. Several sponsors underwrote construction costs for each of the cabins, including the ADA-accessible Evangeline cabin, which has a ramp connecting it to the main house. Poet Peggy Shumaker and her husband doubled every donation to a crowdfunding campaign to dedicate and name the main house for poet and marine biologist Eva Saulitis, who died of breast cancer in 2016.

Stabenow has attended to every detail of the cabins; each one features a gas stove, a movable desk, and a quilt donated by local quilters. Painted a dark green with brown shingles, the cabins reflect the surrounding spires of spruce trees studded with pine cones. Stabenow is pleased they “look grown from the landscape.” A path winds around a pond where a moose and her calf may wander. Native flowers preferred by sponsors will surround each structure. Eva’s House will be graced by Saulitis’s favorite: arctic poppies. 

Sensitive to the fact that the retreat is built on what was originally Native land, Storyknife’s board will always have Native representation and its advisory council will invite Indigenous writers for residencies. At least one cabin a month will be a respite for these selected writers. 

Stabenow hopes to make a residency experience possible for more women—Hedgebrook receives more than 1,400 applications a year for forty spaces—an opportunity she sees as critical in our time. “Storyknife is a response to Trump,” says Stabenow, who began fund-raising in earnest in 2016. “He uses women like Kleenex.” Stabenow’s gutsy youth, spent on her family’s fishing boat, informs her resolve: “I am an Alaskan, and I will not be dissuaded from supporting and fostering the writing of informed and empowered women.” 

 

Amy Pence is a poet, writer, and tutor living in Atlanta. Her most recent books are the hybrid text [It] Incandescent (Ninebark Press, 2018) and the chapbook Your Posthumous Dress: Remnants From the Alexander McQueen Collection (dancing girl press, 2019).

Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Dana Stabenow as an “Alaska native.” Stabenow was born and raised in Alaska, but is not Indigenous.

Storyknife founder Dana Stabenow surveys the construction of new cabins in Homer, Alaska, in summer 2019.

Twenty-Two of the Most Inspiring Writers Retreats in the Country

by

Various

2.13.19

You will always be the best judge of whether a writers retreat is right for you. You know better than anyone whether this conference’s programming or that colony’s writing cabins or this festival’s events or that residency’s schedule of seclusion is a good match for your own needs, experience level, and temperament. Scanning the websites of the more than three hundred writers retreats listed in our carefully curated database at pw.org is a great first step, but thanks to the power of our literary imaginations and the wonders of high-resolution, professional photography, let’s be honest: They all look pretty fantastic. Sadly none of us are lucky enough to be able to attend every one and formulate our own opinions based on firsthand experience, so the next best approach is to ask others who have been there to give their recommendations for which ones are exceptional. That’s exactly what we did while compiling this list.

We reached out to some of the most generous, supportive, inspiring, and discerning authors we know and asked them to recommend retreats that are among the best in terms of productivity, motivation, networking, or any other criteria that is important to them as writers. Many writers based their recommendations on the adventures they had as attendees, while others drew on their experiences as workshop leaders or guest faculty. All of them offer a personal take on what makes these retreats unique—and what rewards they offer those who make the personal decision to devote time and resources to concentrating on one’s art in a new setting, among new people, and working toward a new understanding of one’s writing. We added some practical information about each to help you decide whether you agree. 

 

 

Kaveh Akbar
BOAAT Writer’s Retreat

“The BOAAT Writer’s Retreat was a blessing for me early in my poet life. I was among the retreat’s first cohort of writers, applying after a number of factors caught my eye. I wanted to work with Eduardo C. Corral, a hero of mine, who was leading that workshop. It was a beautiful space full of good food, games, karaoke, time to write and read, and real substantive discourse with Eduardo. It was among the first times I was truly taken seriously as a poet, where I was in a community of writers not as student but as peer and friend.”

Weeklong residency and workshop program for poets in the mountains of Vilas, North Carolina. Tuition is $1,100, which includes workshops, lodging, and meals. Applications will open in June. www.boaatpress.com/boaat-writers-retreat

Alexander Chee 
Virginia Center for the Creative Arts

“When I went to VCCA it was a mix of established artists and new ones, with visual artists, composers, and writers—which, to me, is always good for the imagination—all set down in studios amid fields and hills covered in old roses. It’s an exceedingly gentle place, and I made good friends quickly with the artists and the staff and even found mentors I needed as I worked on my first novel. There’s a dorm atmosphere—we shared bathrooms—and my bathroom-mate and I are still friends. It worked out for us.” 

Residencies of up to two months offered year-round for poets, fiction writers, and creative nonfiction writers on a 450-acre estate at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Residents are provided with private lodging, studio space, and all meals. Next deadline: May 15.

Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, 154 San Angelo Drive, Amherst, VA 24521. (434) 946-7236. www.vcca.com

Nicole Dennis-Benn
MacDowell Colony

“Prior to my summer at MacDowell, I had never been to a residency before, no doubt in part because I always maintained that one can get their work done anywhere with the right amount of dedication and discipline. However, what MacDowell offered me was a seemingly vast capsule of time and a rare opportunity to interact with artists from various disciplines outside of writing. That summer, I established my own relationship with the place and people—something that occurred over time during the evening dinners around a communal table full of food, drink, and live chatter. Meanwhile my creative juices flowed, recharged by my long walks through the woods and conversations with artists who later became friends. During the day my thoughts and ideas brewed under the blanket of quiet in my studio, which was completely surrounded by trees. I grew up in Jamaica—an island of land, wood, and water. So being around the trees lifted my spirit. I knew the hours when lunch would be delivered to my doorstep. I would listen for the sound of wheels crunching pebbles on the graveled path leading to my cottage, and if I was writing I learned that it was better to simply stop and enjoy a meal. Sometimes all I did was stare at the plaques with names of great artists who had been in the studio before me—renowned composers, award-winning authors. Jacqueline Woodson and James Baldwin were the two names that stood out to me. I worked day after day for the most obvious of reasons—to feel that I too belonged in the same place, the same studio where James Baldwin once stayed, slept, and created; and to honor the voices of my past that spoke to me in the urgent whispers of trees.”

Residencies of up to two months offered year-round for poets, fiction writers, and creative nonfiction writers on a 450-acre estate in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Residents are provided with lodging, studio space, and all meals. Next deadline: April 15. MacDowell Colony, 100 High Street, Peterborough, NH 03458. (603) 924-3886. www.macdowellcolony.org

Anthony Doerr
Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference

“First you have to get to Homer, Alaska, at the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula; then you have to get from the airport to the far end of the Homer Spit, a 4.5-mile treeless finger thrust into white-capped, glowing Kachemak Bay. At the end of the spit you reach a rambling hotel called Land’s End, and for a few days, beneath the midnight sun, you get to commune with readers and writers from all over Alaska—and all over the world—in classrooms, on the long rocky shoreline, and in the pages of poems and stories. I’ve heard that some years it rains the whole time, but the summer I visited we had heart-stoppingly beautiful weather: Day after day the bay glittered, otters floated on their backs outside my windows, rainbows hung in the distances, and eagles stood on the decks glaring in at us. Sure, you can meet an agent or talk with an editor, but what I most admired about the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference was the closeness of the community: You can close-read a poem one hour, talk about screenplays the next, then have a drink with somebody who lives in darkness most of the winter and who cares for her neighbors in a way not too many people in the Lower 48 do anymore. If you’d like to pay more attention to the land, make a bunch of new friends with life experiences different from yours, and get away from screens for a bit, Kachemak Bay is worth a look.”

Five-day conference from June 14 to June 18 for poets, fiction writers, and creative nonfiction writers at the Land’s End Resort in Homer, Alaska. The conference features workshops, craft talks, readings, panel discussions on the business of writing, and optional manuscript consultations with agents and editors. The cost of the conference is $395 before May 1 and $425 thereafter. Space is limited; registration is first come, first served. Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference, Kenai Peninsula College, 533 East Pioneer Avenue, Homer, AK 99603. (907) 235-7743. writersconf.kpc.alaska.edu

Melissa Febos
Port Townsend Writers’ Conference

“I’ve taught at the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference many times and love the particular focus on craft and community. There are lectures and readings and activities galore, but the atmosphere is less career-focused than some other conferences I’ve attended. I’ve actually managed to get writing done there! It’s also in an astonishingly beautiful location in the Pacific Northwest—situated atop a set of bluffs in a state park overlooking the Puget Sound, with white-capped mountains in the distance.”

Weeklong conference from July 14 to July 21 for poets, fiction writers, and creative nonfiction writers at Fort Worden State Park, a turn-of-the-century U.S. Army base accessible to saltwater beaches, wooded hills, and the Olympic Mountains in Washington State. The conference features workshops, craft talks, readings, open mics, and time to write. Tuition ranges from $450 to $750. Room and board ranges from $350 to $1,150. Registration is first come, first served. Centrum Port Townsend Writers’ Conference, P.O. Box 1158, Port Townsend, WA 98368. (360) 531-1472. centrum.org/the-port-townsend-writers-conference
 

Sarah Gambito
Blue Mountain Center

“Blue Mountain Center is a residency that supports writers, artists, and activists in Blue Mountain Lake, New York. The center also serves as a resource for culturally based progressive movement building. You can feel the good juju as soon as you walk onto the property. Beyond delicious food—my God, even the freaking desserts are exquisite—and gorgeous surroundings, there is a charge in the air that makes you feel that the conversations you have there, and the work that you’ll create, will make a landslide difference. The staff is consummately committed to its mission and is composed of many artists themselves. When you wake up you see morning fog made incandescent over the lake. Tame deer regard you with fearless eyes. It is a magical, fortifying place.” 

Monthlong residencies in the summer and fall plus eight to ten weekend retreats for poets, fiction writers, and creative nonfiction writers in a turn-of-the-century Adirondack lodge in Blue Mountain Lake, New York, about 120 miles northwest of Albany. Residents are provided with private lodging, studio space, and all meals. Typical deadline: February 1. Blue Mountain Center, P.O. Box 109, Blue Mountain Lake, NY 12812. (518) 352-7391. www.bluemountaincenter.org

Leslie Jamison 
Jentel Artist Residency

“Jentel is an utterly magical under-the-radar residency perched in gorgeous big-sky country in Wyoming. The shared house is sleek, and the writing cabins are cozy and warmed by pellet stoves—your own small world, with views of the largest skies you can imagine. I remember walking through the thousand acres—a massive parcel of land owned by the residency, full of dramatic vistas and ancient fossilized bones—and sitting by the rustling heat of the pellet stove, feverish with that particular pleasure of being able to devote myself fully, in seclusion, to the work. Because there are only five residents at a time, there’s an intimacy to Jentel that felt unusual—it didn’t have the pretension or performance that can come with other residencies. We did a full-moon ritual under the stars. We hit the Mint Bar in Sheridan. We shared our work by the fire one night. But the biggest draw is the big sky. It’s unimaginably expansive; it makes room for dreaming.” 

Four-week residencies offered year-round for poets, fiction writers, and creative nonfiction writers on a cattle ranch in the Lower Piney Creek Valley, 20 miles southeast of Sheridan, Wyoming. Residents are provided with private lodging, studio space, and a $400 stipend. Next deadline: September 15. Jentel Arts Residency Program, 130 Lower Piney Creek Road, Banner, WY 82832. (307) 737-2311. www.jentelarts.org

Christina Baker Kline
Kauai Writers Conference

“The Kauai Writers Conference is truly unique. Kauai is the oldest and most ruggedly beautiful Hawai’ian island; the stunning locale and friendly, laid-back atmosphere attract a top-notch collection of authors, editors, and agents. Just look at this list of authors who’ve already signed on for 2019: Meg Wolitzer, Geraldine Brooks, Greg Iles, Paula McLain, Richard Bausch, Lisa Wingate, and Téa Obreht, among others. Participants have a lot of opportunities to connect with professionals—they can schedule one-on-one meetings with agents and editors, participate in intimate workshops with excellent teachers, and attend lectures and panels with their favorite authors. In addition there are a variety of events where people can meet in more informal settings. Most people come away with not only professional contacts, but also lifelong friendships. I know I did. Can’t wait to go back.”  

Three-day conference from November 8 through November 10 for fiction and nonfiction writers at the Kauai Marriott Resort. The conference features craft talks, author readings, small-group discussions, pitch sessions with agents, and individual manuscript consultations. The cost of the conference is $695. Four-day master classes, from November 4 through November 7, are also available for $695. Manuscript consultations are $95; agent pitch sessions are $50. Lodging is available for discounted rates at the conference hotel. Registration is first come, first served. Kauai Writers Conference, Kalapaki Bay, Lihue, Kauai, HI, 96766. www.kauaiwritersconference.com

Ada Limón
CantoMundo Retreat

“CantoMundo is unlike any other experience I’ve ever had. Listening to Latinx writers from all different backgrounds share their intimate life stories was both grounding and life-affirming. There is a care that’s given to both the head and the heart that feels unique to this space. This is an opportunity not just to find a community, but to build your own tools for survival.”

Four-day retreat in June for Latinx poets at Columbia University in New York City. The retreat includes workshops, craft talks, lectures, panel discussions, and a reading. Fellows receive daily breakfast and lunch. Lodging, travel, and dinners are not included. Lodging is available in shared campus dormitories for $90 per night. Typical deadline: December 31. www.cantomundo.org

Rebecca Makkai
Ragdale

“Of all the residencies I love, Ragdale is the closest to a major city. A fifty-minute train ride and you’re at the Art Institute of Chicago; it’s the most beautiful (period furniture in an architect’s own Arts and Crafts home, with miles of walking trails through tall grass prairie and woods); and it’s the most pleasantly haunted (by friendly ghosts who, I swear, have a sense of humor). It’s small and quiet, and the food is legendary. Go in winter for fireplace gatherings after dinner, or go in summer and the chef might let you help in the garden.” 

Residencies of eighteen or twenty-five days offered year-round for poets, fiction writers, and creative nonfiction writers on fifty acres of prairie in Lake Forest, Illinois. Residents are provided with private lodging and all meals. The fee is $630 for an eighteen-day residency and $875 for a twenty-five-day residency. Financial aid is available on a limited basis. Next deadline: May 15. Ragdale, 1260 North Green Bay Road, Lake Forest, IL 60045. (847) 234-1063, ext. 28. www.ragdale.org

Idra Novey
Millay Colony

“As there are only six artists at a time at the Millay Colony, the atmosphere is relaxed and low-key, and it didn’t take long for everyone to get to know one another. Four of us had rooms in a beautiful barn next to the edge of the forest, where at night we could hear the same persistent bear trying to lift the locked lid on the garbage. I ended up writing a poem about that bear. What has also stayed with me is the path with the poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay posted at intervals along a trail through the forest. For writers in search of remote, wooded places who enjoy getting to know artists in other disciplines, the spacious barn rooms at the Millay Colony offer a distinctive kind of light.”

Two- and four-week residencies from April through November for poets, fiction writers, and creative nonfiction writers at Steepletop, the former estate of Edna St. Vincent Millay in Austerlitz, New York. Residents are provided with lodging, studio space, and meals. Next deadline: March 1. Millay Colony for the Arts, 454 East Hill Road, P.O. Box 3, Austerlitz, NY 12017. (518) 392-3103. www.millaycolony.org

Naomi Shihab Nye
Tassajara Zen Mountain Center

“While Tassajara isn’t a writers retreat per se, it is definitely a place of deepest silence, order, and graciousness—with Zen meditation, hiking, and hot sulfur spring–fed baths. Official ‘writing workshop’ weeks happen sometimes only twice during the summers, sometimes more, but you could go any time and take your writing with you. It’s a place to recalibrate, calm down, revise your own intentions. Tassajara is seventeen miles from a paved road. Most phones don’t work. No Internet. For some of us, private writing and reading time—along with time for meditation and contemplation—is most conducive to our own writing or thinking about writing. I find myself reading whole books in a week at Tassajara and being called to the desk morning, noon, and night. Predawn zazen meditation circles are optional for guests in summer. Just hearing the gongs and very regular bells in place makes you feel more in place inside your being. There is a graciousness in a Zen Buddhist community—Tassajara is populated by serious, focused Zen students all during fall, winter, and spring and not open to other guests then—which is unlike anything else I have ever experienced anywhere. It feels safe, comforting, inviting, unintrusive. There is a fine little library above the zendo, open to all. The air, the valley, the large jays, the mountains towering above, the rushing waters of the creek, the sky, the stars at night, the utter perfect simplicity. Tassajara is home.”

Retreats of two to seven days from late April to early September for poets, fiction writers, and creative nonfiction writers at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, located inland from the Big Sur coast in a remote mountain valley within the Ventana Wilderness. The retreat includes workshops, talks, time to write, yoga classes, meditation sessions, and access to natural hot springs and hiking trails. Residents are provided with all meals. Lodging in shared dorms or private cabins ranges from $125 to $446 per night. Admissions are rolling. Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, 39171 Tassajara Road, Carmel Valley, CA 93924. (415) 865-1895. www.sfzc.org/tassajara

Benjamin Percy
Aspen Summer Words

“Some of the most storied conferences are a week and a half to two weeks long. That’s a big ask. You want to get away, of course, to properly tune out the world and worship the page, but you also have to consider work and family. Aspen is five days. Which feels like the perfect length of time. No one burns out. Everyone is high on words and altitude the entire stay. And it just so happens to take place in a ridiculously beautiful location. Literary Shangri-la. There is the standard schedule of workshops, lectures, panels, and cocktail receptions, but there is also plenty of free time to hike or read or write or wrestle one of the many black bears ambling through town.”

Five-day conference from June 16 to June 21 for poets, fiction writers, and creative nonfiction writers at the Gant, a resort in the mountains of Aspen, Colorado. The conference features workshops, panels, readings, and meetings with agents and editors. Tuition is $1,525, which includes some meals. Next deadline: February 28. Aspen Summer Words Writing Conference and Literary Festival, 110 East Hallam Street, Suite 116, Aspen, CO 81611. (970) 925-3122, ext. 1. www.aspenwords.org/programs/summer-words

Tommy Pico 
Tin House Summer Workshop

“Tin House is technically only a week long, one bursting with workshops and seminars and readings and agent meetings and karaoke, etc., but its impact ripples way past the week. I’ve formed deep friendships, cemented tour schedules, and finished a couple books because of the workshop. It’s about the writing first and foremost, but it also highlights the real-world infrastructure a working writer needs.”

Weeklong workshop for poets, fiction writers, and creative nonfiction writers from July 7 through July 14 at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. The program also includes seminars, readings, and meetings with agents and editors. Next deadline: April 7. Tin House Summer Workshop, 260 NW Thurman Street, Portland, OR 97210. (503) 219-0622. tinhouse.com/workshop/summer-workshop

Dani Shapiro
Hedgebrook

“Imagine six hand-hewn cottages nestled into the most mossy, peaceful woods, with a view of Mount Rainier on clear days and llamas grazing out front. Imagine one cup, one plate, one glass. A stained glass window. A loft bed covered with a quilt that could have been made by your grandma. Each morning, after you light the wood stove: precious, cosseted solitude. And as the sun goes down, a delicious dinner lovingly prepared for the small group of women writers—Hedgebrook is one of the only retreats for women only—who sit around the farmhouse table in literary camaraderie.”

Two- to six-week residencies from February through October for six to eight women writers on Whidbey Island, about thirty-five miles northwest of Seattle. Residents are provided with lodging and studio space in a private cottage and all meals. Typical deadline: July 27. Hedgebrook Writers in Residence Program, P.O. Box 1231, Freeland, WA 98249. (360) 321-4786. www.hedgebrook.org

Megan Stielstra
ChiTeen Lit Fest

“ChiTeen Lit Fest is an annual literary festival bringing youth artists together from across our city. It’s for teens, by teens—they choose the visiting writers and discussion topics, they design the workshops and performances in poetry, prose, songwriting, and criticism. You want to learn about your city? You want to learn about your country? Listen to its young people.” 

Two-day literary festival in April for writers ages thirteen to nineteen at various locations in Chicago. The festival features workshops, panel discussions, readings, performances, and open mics. Admission is free; registration is first come, first served. ChiTeen Lit Fest, Chicago Public Library Foundation, 20 North Michigan Ave, Suite 520, Chicago, IL 60602. (312) 201-9830. cplfoundation.org/chiteen-lit-fest-2018

Laura van den Berg recommends
Art Omi 

“Art Omi is more than a residency program. I think of it as a kind of international arts laboratory, situated in bucolic Ghent, New York. There are countless things to recommend about Art Omi—the diverse, multidisciplinary arts community; the very inviting library; the excellent food—but the landscape itself is a true gem. I took daily walks from my housing to the Fields Sculpture Park, to look at the sculptures. During my stay there was also an architecture installation where visitors could climb through underground tunnels, an activity that seemed like an apt metaphor for working on a novel.”

One-week to two-month residencies from late March to early June and mid-September to early November for poets, fiction writers, creative nonfiction writers, and translators at Omi International Arts Center, situated on 300 acres in the Hudson River Valley. Residents are provided with private lodging, meals, and opportunities to meet with New York City publishing professionals. Typical deadline: October 20. Art Omi Writers Residency, 55 Fifth Avenue, Fifteenth Floor, New York, NY 10003. (212) 206-6170. www.artomi.org/residencies/writers

Claire Vaye Watkins recommends
The Believer Festival 

“What I love about the Believer Festival is how exuberantly it debunks the popular myths of its city, Las Vegas: a nowhere place, hardly there at all, what happens there…you know the rest. ‘Not so!’ the Believer Festival says, putting marquee luminaries and rising stars onstage together in fabulous, surprising settings like Red Rock Canyon or the Mob Museum. It’s a deeply felt scene, the perfect way to get a feel for the Believer vibe since the magazine’s relocation to Las Vegas, combining Bay Area hipness with southern Nevada realness. Best of all, the Believer Festival happens in the spring, so you can rub elbows with the literati in Las Vegas for a few days, then bug out into the Mojave Desert beyond, where the wildflowers will be popping.”

Three-day festival from April 25 through April 27 for poets, fiction writers, and creative nonfiction writers at various locations in and around Las Vegas. The festival features readings, interviews with authors and artists, and musical performances. Individual events are $15 each before March 15, $25 thereafter, and $10 for students. Believer Festival, Black Mountain Institute, 4505 South Maryland Parkway, Box 455085. Las Vegas, NV 89154. believerfestival.org

Jenny Xie
Fine Arts Work Center

“When I was enrolled in a weeklong summer workshop at Fine Arts Work Center [FAWC] in Provincetown as a Walker Fellow, I deeply appreciated how FAWC was embedded in the larger surrounding community. The schedule was ideal: I would attend workshop classes in the mornings, which was my preferred time, and have the remainder of the day after lunch to read, write, or walk. The rhythms of Provincetown were never an intrusion, but a welcome extension of the workshops at FAWC. The solitary walks I’d take alongside the salt marshes and sand dunes, and into small galleries and shops on Main Street, recharged my mind and helped me return to the page, and to the warm community of writers and artists, with new energy.”

Weeklong workshops from July through August for poets, fiction writers, and creative nonfiction writers in Provincetown, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. Workshops range from $600 to $650. On-site lodging is availabe. Registration is first come, first served. Seven-month residencies from October 1 through April 30 for poets and fiction writers are also available. Residents are provided with lodging, studio space, and a $750 monthly stipend. Typical deadline: December 2. Fine Arts Work Center, 24 Pearl Street, Provincetown, MA 02657. (508) 487-9960. www.fawc.org

Charles Yu
Key West Literary Seminar

“I went to the KWLS in January 2012. Part of me still can’t believe I got to be part of something like that. It’s not a very big island, and with hundreds of people arriving for the conference, it almost felt like a fantasy camp for writers and readers. From the moment you get off the plane at the tiny, charming airport, you’re surrounded by people who love books—and also many people who have written books I love. The staff do such an incredible job making the experience special; from the mixers to the panel discussions and keynote addresses, it’s several days of wall-to-wall programming that you won’t want to miss.”

Four-day conference in January for poets, fiction writers, and creative nonfiction writers at the San Carlos Institute in Key West, Florida. The conference includes workshops, lectures, craft talks, panel discussions, and readings. The cost of the conference is $675; workshops are an additional $600. Lodging is available at area hotels and inns for discounted rates. Admission is first come, first served. Key West Literary Seminar, 717 Love Lane Key West, FL 33040. (305) 293-9291. www.kwls.org

Matthew Zapruder 
Community of Writers at Squaw Valley

“I’ve taught at several weeklong writing workshops, including the Juniper Institute, Tin House, and Napa Valley. I love how they make a space for people with busy lives to take a week to just be poets. The poetry week at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley is one of my favorites because it focuses mostly on generating new work. Each day everyone there, instructors included, writes a new poem, to be gently workshopped—really just read and discussed as a work-in-progress—the next day, or sometimes that very same day if, like me, you are inclined to finish your new poem in the early hours. Each day the workshops rotate, so you get to be in class with each of the faculty there. The week is filled with lectures, individual conferences, readings, informal gatherings—the softball game and final night party are legendary—and, most of all, the spirit of making new work. It’s an incredibly productive, challenging, exciting, and intimate week of growth in poetry.”

Weeklong workshops in poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction in June and July in Squaw Valley, near Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Tuition, which includes some meals, is $1,250 for poetry workshops and $1,350 for prose workshops. Lodging ranges from $300 to $1,280. Next deadline: March 28. Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, P.O. Box 1416, Nevada City, CA 95959. (530) 470-8440. communityofwriters.org

Leni Zumas
Djerassi Resident Artists Program

“I once spent a glorious month at Djerassi, nestled in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains (next to Neil Young’s ranch) overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The residency was founded by Carl Djerassi, one of the chemists who developed the birth-control pill. To be immersed in mountain beauty, given good meals and a cozy room, free to sleep and read and walk and write as I chose—it was heaven.” 

Monthlong residencies from mid-March through mid-November for poets, fiction writers, and creative nonfiction writers on a 583-acre ranch approximately 40 miles south of San Francisco. Residents are provided with lodging, meals, and studio space. Next deadline: March 15. Djerassi Resident Artists Program, 2325 Bear Gulch Road, Woodside, CA 94062. www.djerassi.org 

Kachemak Bay in Homer, Alaska, the location of the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference.

(Credit: Kevin Larimer)

Top Ten Retreats for Emerging Writers

by

Staff

2.13.19

Retreats can be a vital source of inspiration and support for writers at any stage of their careers. But for those just starting out, an opportunity to take some time away from daily life and devote a few days (or weeks, or months) to writing—to develop and deepen one’s practice, to workshop new pieces, to learn about the publishing industry, and to make lifelong friendships and professional connections—can be invaluable. The following ten retreats, workshop programs, conferences, and festivals are geared especially toward emerging writers.

Cave Canem Retreat 
Cave Canem offers a weeklong retreat for emerging poets of African descent, held annually in June at the University of Pittsburgh in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. The retreat includes workshops, craft talks, readings, and time to write. Tuition is $1,050; the fee for lodging and meals is $590. Scholarships are available based on need. Application fee: $20. Typical deadline: December 21. Cave Canem, 20 Jay Street, Suite 310-A, Brooklyn, NY 11201. (718) 858-0000. www.cavecanempoets.org

Emerging Poets Fellowship Program at Poets House 
Poets House offers ten fellowships from March to June for emerging poets living in New York City. Each fellow receives a $500 honorarium, a $100 travel stipend, and access to weekly workshops, mentoring sessions, craft discussions with visiting poets, and other events at Poets House, located in lower Manhattan’s Battery Park City neighborhood. There is no application fee. Typical deadline: December 1. Poets House, 10 River Terrace, New York, NY 10282. (212) 431-7920. poetshouse.org

Hub City Writers Project 
The Hub City Writers Project offers two fifteen-week residencies each year at the Writers House in Spartanburg, South Carolina, for emerging poets and prose writers who are pursuing a graduate degree in creative writing or who have completed an undergraduate or graduate degree in creative writing within the past five years. Residents are provided with lodging and work space in a historic downtown cottage, as well as a $650 monthly stipend in exchange for community service with Hub City Press or Hub City Bookshop. Application fee: $30. Typical deadline: April 15. Hub City Writers Project, 186 West Main Street, Spartanburg, SC 29306. (864) 557-9349. www.hubcity.org/residencies

Jack Jones Retreat 
The third annual Jack Jones Literary Arts Retreat for emerging women poets, fiction writers, and nonfiction writers of color will be held October 26 through November 8 at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Retreat Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The retreat offers time to write as well as daily master classes and meetings with agents, editors, and women in publishing to promote networking, learning, and engagement. Residents are provided with full tuition, private lodging, writing space, and all meals. Application fee: $35. Deadline: April 20. Jack Jones Literary Arts, P.O. Box 291672, Los Angeles, CA 90029. www.jackjonesliteraryarts.com

Kimbilio Retreat
The Kimbilio Retreat for emerging African American fiction writers will be held July 21 through July 27 at Southern Methodist University in Taos, New Mexico. The retreat offers workshops, craft classes, lectures, readings, and time to write. The cost of lodging and meals ranges from $350 to $700. There is no application fee. Deadline: March 15. www.kimbiliofiction.com

Kundiman Retreat 
The Kundiman Asian American Workshop Retreat is held annually in June at Fordham University’s Rose Hill campus in the Bronx in New York City. The retreat features poetry and fiction workshops, one-on-one mentoring, manuscript consultations, and a public reading. Tuition, which includes lodging and meals, is $375. Application fee: $25. Typical deadline: January 15. Kundiman, 229 West 109th Street, Suite 22, New York, NY 10025. 
www.kundiman.org

Lambda Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices 
The Lambda Literary Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices is held annually in August or September at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. The retreat offers weeklong intensive workshops in poetry, fiction, genre fiction, and nonfiction for LGBTQ writers, along with opportunities to meet publishing industry professionals and build a strong community of peers. The cost of the retreat is $1,650, which includes room and board. Application fee: $25. Typical deadline: February 1. Lambda Literary Foundation, 811 West 7th St, 12th Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90017. (213) 277-5755. 
www.lambdaliterary.org

Starry Night Retreat 
Starry Night Retreat offers one- to eight-week residencies from May through September and from November through March to emerging poets, fiction writers, and creative nonfiction writers in New Mexico. Residents are provided with private lodging, shared studio space, and access to a communal courtyard. The cost of the residency is $900 per week. Financial aid is available. There is no application fee. Admissions are made on a rolling basis. Starry Night Retreat, 718 Van Patten Street, Truth or Consequences, NM 87901. www.starrynightretreat.com

VONA/Voices of Our Nations Workshop
The VONA/Voices of Our Nations Foundation offers one- to two-day workshops for poets, fiction writers, and nonfiction writers of color, held in various locations throughout the year, including New York City, New Orleans, and the San Francisco Bay Area. The 2019 program will feature workshops with Faith Adiele, Daniel José Older, Shay Youngblood, and others. The cost of the workshops ranges from $125 to $450. Registration is first come, first served. www.vonacommunity.org

Writefest: A Festival For Emerging Writers
Writefest: A Festival For Emerging Writers will be held from May 27 through June 2 at Rice University in Houston, Texas. The festival features workshops in poetry and short prose,  as well as presentations, critique sessions, editor panels, author readings, and a literary journal fair. The cost of the conference ranges from $95 for a day pass to $495 for a full-event pass. Student discounts are available. Registration is first come, first served. Writefest, 2000A Edwards Street, Suite 212, Silver Street Studios, Houston, TX, 77001. www.writefesthouston.com 

The Moment of Truth: Eleven Authors Share Stories of Life-Changing Retreats

by

Kevin Larimer

2.10.15

Lectures, readings, panel discussions, craft classes, and solid blocks of time reserved for writing are all common features of the world’s most popular conferences, festivals, and residencies. But often the most valuable moments at these events are unplanned and unscripted—the result of a fateful encounter, a twist of luck, or a sudden realization.

We asked a handful of writers if they’ve ever experienced moments of magic at a writers retreat. The resulting essays transcend the usual descriptions of Adirondack chairs set across rolling hillsides or the hustle and bustle of book fairs and explore the real reasons writers gather at these types of events: to forge new relationships, gain fresh perspectives on writing and life, and perhaps even learn a little something about themselves as artists and people.

 

The MacDowell Colony (Photo by: Joanna Eldredge Morrissey)

 
 

Seven Hours

In my childhood fantasies of being a writer, I imagined my days spent in a tiny, book-stuffed New York City apartment, hunched over a typewriter, furiously pounding out my stories, a cigarette dangling from my lips and a half-empty glass of scotch sweating on the desk. The muses, I imagined, would keep me in this exquisite bondage for marathon stretches—whole days and nights, after which I would collapse beside a tidy, towering stack of finished pages. Only the tiny book-stuffed New York City apartment panned out. It turned out that drinking was anathema to finishing anything, and I could reasonably work for only about three hours at a stretch. In fact, all the writers I knew agreed that three to four hours was our limit. Though I only knew other writers in New York, I assumed this was a universal experience, and a comforting one. Writing was hard. I wanted to stop after three hours.

Then I attended my first residency. The first morning I sat down to work in my spacious studio at the MacDowell Colony, I took a deep breath. I sipped my coffee, and started typing. Summer in rural New Hampshire is a verdant, buzzing thing, and as I worked, deer meandered through the meadow outside my studio. A couple of wild turkeys bobbed by the screen door, peering inside with their charmingly hideous faces. After three hours, in the middle of a difficult paragraph, I stood up and stretched. I peered down the dirt road for the van that would deliver my basket lunch. I waved my phone around, trying to catch a signal so I could check my e-mail. No luck. I stood on the porch, feeling lost. Then, I sat back down and finished that paragraph. For the rest of my five weeks in that studio, I worked an average of seven hours per day. Three hours wasn’t my writing limit. It was the length of time I could successfully fend off the siren song of the Internet, the city, and, ultimately, my own impatience. Those woods taught me that I could expect more of myself.

Melissa Febos is the author of the memoir Whip Smart: The True Story of a Secret Life (St. Martin’s Press, 2010).

 

Agent Action

The first writers conference I ever attended was the twenty-fifth annual Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference in 1996. It had never really occurred to me that I could be a professional writer, but when I walked in and heard the Hallelujah Chorus—or maybe it was just the bong! of a Mac starting up—I felt I was finally in the right place. The keynote speaker was Peggy Rathmann, a Caldecott Medal winner and someone I revered in my genre of choice: picture books. I scrounged up the courage to approach her, and we spoke privately about some of the things I was working on. She suggested I talk to a friend of hers, an up-and-coming agent named Steven Malk of Writers House. He ended up loving my work, and what would become my first published title, a funny nonfiction picture book, ended up in a bidding war! Harcourt published Who Hops? in 2001, and it’s still in print to this day. I’ve been lucky enough to traditionally publish many more books for children, teens, and young adults, as well as independently publish marketing guides for adults. I’ve also developed a career as a writer-entrepreneur, coaching other writers on how to build their platforms and market themselves. None of it would’ve happened if I hadn’t gone to that first conference! I prefer going to colonies outside the United States. There’s something about moving in a space that is not my home that makes me more aware about my place in the world. And if I see myself with more clarity, I take that sharper vision to my writing. Every afternoon in Brazil, on a residency at Instituto Sacatar, I’d go to the nearby beach and float in the water, drifting into thought as my body drifted out to sea—a meditative exercise that allowed me to write a few fresh pages each night. But one time I floated so far out that all I could see was a thin horizon I suspected was the faraway shore. After the initial panic came the surrender to an entirely new perspective: If I survived this, I’d spend less energy inhabiting my past, isolating myself in books, keeping sad company in the late hours with my blank, expressionless computer screen—I’d value the days ahead of me as much as the days behind me. I didn’t tell anyone about my near-death experience that evening, though at dinner someone asked, “What are you working on?” and I said, “Tomorrow.”

Rigoberto González is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

 

Fellowship

In 2001 I stood at the New Issues Poetry & Prose table at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs book fair in Palm Springs, California, patiently waiting for my soon-to-be-evident fan base to find me and ask me to sign newly purchased copies of my second book. In the first half hour, I’d signed one copy and misspelled the name of the person who bought it, starting a long tradition, which continues to this day, of never signing books using anyone’s name. On the flight to Palm Springs, I sat next to Yona Harvey, whom I know now as an extraordinary poet and a wonderful woman. She told me all about Cave Canem, a fellowship of black poets to which she belonged and to which she seemed frankly devoted. I’d thought about the conversation repeatedly over the first few days of the conference, as I pressed my way through crowds of people I didn’t know in hotel lobbies I supposed I’d never walk through again. At the book fair, I stood idly imagining that any moment, someone whose books I’d admired for years would approach me and tell me how much they enjoyed my poems. While I daydreamed in futility, Cave Canem’s table nearby was a flourish of activity in its spot inside the door of the exhibit hall. It seemed that every time visitors approached, they were taken in. First a hug, then an introduction. Handshakes. More hugs. Laughter, lots of laughter. I thought of Yona on the plane, her beautiful face framed by meticulous locks, her energy when she spoke of this fellowship, and I felt at once a great loss, an absence of this sort of fellowship in my own writing life. Through Cave Canem I saw in people a sense of belonging that I longed for. I applied to be a fellow the following year and was accepted. At the risk of being sentimental, it changed my life. Now, whenever I see my Cave Canem fellows, I am hugged, I am introduced, I am brought into laughter, and I am inspired to great gestures of devotion still.

Ruth Ellen Kocher is the author of six poetry collections, including Ending in Planes (Noemi Press, 2014).

 

Red Spaghetti

If writing doesn’t make you rich and famous, it usually makes you hungry. So last winter, after banging away for hours on “Born Like This,” my novel-in-progress about a disgraced investigative journalist, a transgender movie star, and a Mormon drug mule, I was ravenous, though still not yet rich or famous. A guest for one week of Writing Between the Vines, a retreat at Moshin Vineyards, situated amid the lush valleys and corkscrew roads of Sonoma County, California, I was given my own charming cottage and the title “artist in residence.” Those seven days may be the only ones in which I’ll ever be referred to as an “artist,” and in the specific hours herein described, I was actually a starving one. Leaving behind my bramble of index cards, colored markers, and Lucky Troll pencils in search of sustenance, I hit the area’s main highway on foot, hoping to locate an Italian eatery I remembered passing on my way to the vineyard days earlier. Six miles and about ninety minutes later—I have a terrible sense of direction and do a lot of roaming—I arrived at Red Spaghetti, which must have been, and could still be for all I know, someone’s home, its ranch-style front porch pressed to the turnpike, a few ramshackle Chevy pickups parked in the adjacent gravel lot. Stepping to the porch, peering through the establishment’s thrice-punctured screen door, spotting inside a loose congress of what could have been Sons of Anarchy extras huddled curiously close to one another, it became suddenly clear: Red Spaghetti was not a restaurant at all. Offering no pasta, prosciutto, or pignolata, this joint was actually a tattoo parlor. I returned, still famished, to the vineyard, where the gently effervescent director of hospitality, Julia Lander, was delighted to fill my belly with generous pours of Moshin’s enchanting 2008 Pinot Noir. In some ways, awarding writers a one-week retreat at a vineyard, where alcohol is in such gross abundance and so near at hand, only reinforces the tawdry stereotypes heaped upon wordsmiths for at least a century. On the other hand, if you’re going to be a starving artist, you might as well be drunk. I’ve had better meals, sure, but never a finer dinner, and the next morning it struck me: “Born Like This” is about all the ways people refuse to be who we think they are. Why should Red Spaghetti be any different?

Todd Jensen is the author of four books, including On Gratitude: Sheryl Crow, Jeff Bridges, Alicia Keys, Daryl Hall, Ray Bradbury, Anna Kendrick, B. B. King, Elmore Leonard, Deepak Chopra, and 42 More Celebrities Share What They’re Most Thankful For (Adams Media, 2010).

 

One Story

In 2006 I spent the month of April at the Ucross Foundation in Clearmont, Wyoming. A friend of mine, writer and editor Hannah Tinti, also happened to be there at the same time. I’d received my MFA from New York University the year before, and since I knew how to make a galley from my work at a small press, I had self-published one hundred copies of my thesis: perfect bound, small trim size, matte pink cover. I’d been giving them away to friends, and I gave one to Hannah at Ucross; she liked one of the stories in the book enough that she wanted to run it in One Story, the literary magazine she cofounded and edits. We worked on “The Samoan Assassin Calls It Quits” over the course of a few evenings, when we were done with our writing for the day. I had the great experience of watching Hannah make masterful edits to the story. She made it better than it had been. In a small way, I felt the same as George Saunders did when told he’d won a MacArthur: “I feel smarter already!” I hope always to have brilliant writer and editor friends like Hannah, and I hope that unhurried, meticulous editing, and the slow time and beautiful isolation of places like Ucross never go away.

Thomas Hopkins is the author of a short story collection, “The Crypto-Jews Dilemma and Other Conversion Stories,” which was selected by Salvatore Scibona as runner-up for the 2012 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction.

The Ucross Foundation (Photo by: Stephen G. Weaver)

 
 

Shaken-Baby Syndrome

I walked into my second year at the Voices workshop in 2010 feeling really full of myself. I’d had a superproductive year that included finishing a novel and cowriting a book for social activists. My arrogance was only encouraged by being accepted into Chris Abani’s advanced fiction workshop. On the first day Chris silenced the class effortlessly with a glance. His thick-fingered hands folded on a stack of papers, he asked, “Why do you write?” I shot my hand up. “It’s the air that I breathe.” Chris smirked. “Yeah, that’s that flowery shit you’ve been told. It doesn’t answer the question.” “Why do you write, Vanessa?” Chris continued. “You could have done anything else—paint, take pictures, whatever—but you chose to write. Why?” I stammered. None of my answers were enough. He kept pushing. I felt like a serial killer being interrogated by the FBI. Finally, in a cracked voice, I blurted, “Because on the page I could be myself. I could shut out those voices that said I was too much, that girls shouldn’t act like that.” Chris softened. “So you write to take back your power.” When he dismissed us, I ran to my room. All that confidence I’d come to with was smashed. I write to take back my power? What the fuck does that mean? I didn’t resurface until late evening, when my hunger pangs were unbearable. The next day, brooding over my morning pages, I realized Chris’s motives: I had to remember why I started writing to understand why I kept writing. He needed us to see that writers write from the same place—a wound. I walked up to him when I entered the classroom. “You messed me up yesterday.” He smiled. “Seriously, I was rattled, like I had shaken-baby syndrome.” We stared at each other as that image set in, then we both burst out laughing.“Thank you, Chris,” I said. I’ve been back to VONA every year since.

Vanessa Mártir is a New York City–based writer and educator who is completing a memoir-in-essays titled “Relentless.”

 

Ghost Story

Two summers ago I did a residency at the Studios of Key West. An article in the local paper described the residency as a chance to “live in paradise.” Until the haunting started, it was exactly that.On my third night I was awoken by footsteps outside my window, strange movements in the bushes, shrill cries. The sound of someone walking the gravel path that hugged my cottage. Every night the noises continued. Once they were so violently loud, I hid in the shower until dawn. I had come to Key West to confront my novel. I had not expected to confront a ghost. The haunting lasted for two weeks. I stopped sleeping. I started swimming in the ocean because it was the only thing that kept me awake. One morning I came up for air knowing what I had to do with my book. Back at my desk, I deleted the last hundred and fifty pages. I saved nothing. I started over and felt as though a great weight had been lifted. Halfway through the residency the matter of the ghost was settled. Other residents had been plagued by the night noises; a casting-out ceremony was held—and it worked! But for those two weeks, a ghost was just what I needed. I spent those nights full of fear and, in the light of day, I couldn’t stand to be afraid of my book any longer.

Laura van den Berg is the author of a novel, Find Me, (FSG, 2015), and the story collections The Isle of Youth (FSG, 2013) and What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (Dzanc Books, 2009).

 

Magical Meetings

In 1988 I went to the MacDowell Colony for the first time, astonished and a little intimidated to find myself in such ambitious and gifted company. The list of fellow fellows was a mini Who’s Who in that moment, but the transformative encounter, the meeting that changed everything for me, was the meeting with Carole Maso. I don’t recall how we actually met, whether it was at dinner or someone’s event, but Carole likes to remind me that she said we’d be best friends—and that I looked back at her blankly, as if to say I doubted it. As it turned out, we were both headed overseas for further art-colony time (at the Joseph Károlyi Foundation, in Venice). We became close and, as she had been thinking about experimental literature and feminism longer, harder, and much more effectively than I, I had the chance to learn from her about writing, teaching, and life. But it was in that first winter (I think it may have been February) that I read her book Ghost Dance and then, in manuscript form, her brilliant hybrid novel The Art Lover. The first book floored me and the latter changed—as it did for so many others—my understanding of the way forward for American literature: In The Art Lover, genre restrictions dissolved before the great power of language as exquisite as it was bold. I would never have dared write my book The Tales of Horror, to begin the great adventure of writing not toward given expectations but as a way of finding out what can happen, without her example and friendship.

In 2003 I went to MacDowell for the last time. It was a bit of an emergency: I had a book that needed finishing (and a relationship that probably needed finishing too—but that’s another story), and I snuck in a couple of weeks in January. By great good fortune, I happened to overlap with the composer Jason Eckardt. Again, I’m not sure exactly how it happened: that mysterious shift from pretend acceptance (anyone not superfamous usually exhibits a vague general friendliness at meals) to real recognition and trust. For Jason a key moment came, I later learned, when he, having worn out his interest in the CDs he’d brought to MacDowell, asked if anyone had anything they could loan him, and I just happened to have the complete Xenakis chamber music (tucked in there with Hole and Modest Mouse). I think we’d already established a certain level of understanding—we shared a desire to talk seriously about life and art—but that opened the door to an exchange of work, leading to me reeling around in the icy bare trees at dusk with Jason’s “After Serra” pouring through my headphones, the strict geometry and passion of his compositions seeming like the audible manifestation of the stripped-down landscape, or the combination filling me with a kind of holy euphoria. And then Jason saw the manuscript that would become my book Subject before anyone else—and set the final poem as a song cycle, which premiered at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre and then at the Musica Nova festival in Finland.

Laura Mullen is the McElveen Professor in English and the director of creative writing at Louisiana State University. Her most recent book is Enduring Freedom (Otis/Seismicity, 2012); a new collection, Complicated Grief, is forthcoming from Solid Objects Press.

 

The Mimes of Bogotá

The Mayo Clinic Dolores Jean Lavins Center for Humanities in Medicine in Rochester, Minnesota, was full of artists. In a hospital conference room, Jack Becker, executive director of the nonprofit Forecast Public Art, told us about the mimes of Bogotá. A former mayor of the Colombian capital, Antanas Mockus, made art public policy when he hired roughly four hundred mimes to replace police at traffic intersections to parody people who did not obey traffic rules. Within a year, performance artists had reduced traffic fatalities. The idea was compelling: art integrated into the wellness of the city.

I’d come to the Mayo Clinic Arts in Healthcare Symposium to present a paper on ways to use creative writing in a medical setting. I plan creative writing classes that take place in hospitals; medical professionals often ask me what impact narrative programs have on a patient’s health. I tell them that creative writing can enliven patients and create opportunities for catharsis and empathy.

Jack Becker’s anecdote about the mimes of Bogotá called to mind a deeper truth I hold about narrative: that stories permit one to imaginatively leave the hospital. I know this from experience. When I was seventeen I was hospitalized with a collapsed lung. The diagnosis was spontaneous pneumothorax: One day, I simply couldn’t breathe. In the hospital, I had a tube in my chest the size of a large drinking straw. On my last day there, a mime walked into my room. His face was painted white and black, his lips a cherry red, and when I saw him standing in the doorway, I was suddenly reminded that I was a patient. Until that point I had been reading, absorbed in a book. In my hospital bed, stories had comforted me. Reading had granted me an escape from the boundaries of the walls that surrounded me. I hadn’t recalled that moment for years. Becker’s talk at the Mayo Clinic Arts in Healthcare Symposium gave me a much-needed reminder of the importance of writing and literature.

Kathryn Savage works at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis and has received scholarships and residencies from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Ucross Foundation, and the Vermont Studio Center.

 

Match Made in Paradise

Thisbe Nissen and I met at the 2006 Writers in Paradise conference in Florida. Thisbe taught a short-fiction workshop; I drove the faculty van, which I managed to get stolen. When the van was found—a campus custodian had commandeered it—I used it to woo Thisbe, who was approachable but, I eventually learned, not wooable.

The conference ended. We went our separate ways. We corresponded and swapped writing. We visited. A working friendship turned whirlwind courtship. As the 2007 Writers in Paradise conference approached, we talked marriage—not if but when, how, and why. Thisbe suggested to the organizers, Sterling Watson and Dennis Lehane, that she and I teach her class together. I would once again drive the faculty van (Sterling implored me to keep better tabs on it this time) as well as introduce Thisbe’s faculty reading. I felt obliged and obliterated—here was my chance.

On the day of the reading, I was a mess. My mom was going to be there! I drafted a marriage proposal, but the last thing I wanted was a public display. My idea of living hell is being the center of attention. But Thisbe, while a successful fiction writer, is first and foremost a failed showgirl. Her first love is musical revue. She adores a good show and even appreciates a bad show. I drove a van full of rowdy novelists and poets to the reading, having a hard time remembering my name—let alone the way to the auditorium. I reminded myself that my passengers—a lot of them repeats, a number of them couples—were pulling for Thisbe and me. Master writers, they recognized before we did what a good love story we’d make. Beth Ann Fennelly leaned over my shoulder. Her husband, Tom Franklin, would read first that night. Ribbing me, she said, “I’m reading a love poem to Tommy for my introduction, Jay. How’re you gonna top that?”

I steered and shrugged. I sweated. My proposal smoldered in my pocket. Blanking my way through Tom’s reading, I found myself onstage. Behind the podium. Groping in my pocket. There, I fingered my notes. Also, the little plastic ring I’d won, in secret, from a gumball machine at a Florida dive of a diner, Skyway Jack’s, where Thisbe and I ate brunch and ogled the sexagenarian waitresses subjected to the indignity of their T-shirts: a pair of sunny-side-up eggs emblazoned high above their low bosoms.

Gathering myself, I glanced at the audience: a hundred or so faces. Sterling nodded. My mom beamed. I faltered. No one but me knew what I had planned—I could still back out.

“After Thisbe’s reading,” I said, plowing ahead, “there will be a Q&A. But while I have the microphone, I’d like to ask my question before someone beats me to it.” I turned to where she waited. “Thisbe Nissen,” I asked, “will you marry me?”

I took a knee beside the podium, shut my eyes, and offered up the kitschy ring.

The crowd, myself included, waited. Thisbe, her cowboy boots striking hardwood, bounded onstage. She kissed me and claimed her ridiculous ring. Leaning into the microphone, pausing a moment, she said, “Yes.”

We wept. A hundred people—Sterling, my mom—hugged and applauded. We took our seats and sat rapt—the show must go on!—as Thisbe launched us, with gusto, into her reading and our lives together.

Jay Baron Nicorvo is the author of the poetry collection Deadbeat (Four Way Books, 2012).

 

Kevin Larimer is the editor in chief of Poets & Writers, Inc.

A Residency of One’s Own: Navigating the Complicated Path to a Writers Retreat

by

Melissa Scholes Young

2.10.16

What about the kids?” they asked, again and again, especially the women, when I shared the news of my upcoming writing residency. To which I thought: “I didn’t stop being a writer when I gave birth; I won’t stop being a mother during my retreat.”

No one asked Virginia Woolf, “What about the kids?” when she sat alone in her study and composed A Room of One’s Own. “A woman must have a room of her own and money if she is to write fiction,” she wrote. It was perhaps easier for Woolf, with her small inheritance and privilege and child-free life. But we all have boundaries to break—Victorian, mental, and otherwise; some are imposed by others, and plenty are our own.

A room of my own seemed unachievable to me at twenty-six, when I read Woolf’s treatise. I was pregnant with my first child. I wanted to be a mother and an artist, and I was also a high school teacher. Rubbing my expanding belly, I birthed my first short story. I began planning my own room, but it was crowded with seven classes of high school students every day and a partner writing his dissertation every night. At thirty-two, there was another baby, another postponement, and more students. I was writing plenty along the way, publishing in magazines and literary journals, and deep into drafting my novel. Even then I knew that my solitary room, free of everyday demands, was necessary, for both the mental and physical retreat it would afford. A writing residency, it seemed, was the only way to find it.

In her essay “Professions for Women,” Woolf warns that we must kill Victorian poet Coventry Patmore’s “Angel in the House,” the ghostly wife who adores chores. The murder of domesticity, Woolf wrote, “was part of the occupation of a woman writer.” Woolf didn’t have diapers to change, but she cared for her father, struggled to manage her staff, and became embroiled in an intimate and ambivalent eighteen-year relationship with her cook. Domesticity took up a lot of space in Woolf’s diary; the sound of scraping dishes and floors being mopped followed her to her room, even if it was her own. She may not have been at the market every day buying her own fish, though she did try and fail once, but managing life took up plenty of her mental energy.

My role as mother, as caregiver, as cook and house manager feeds my work too. My family’s dialogue creeps into my stories. When I’m walking the dog, I restructure plot in my mind. With my hands in a sink of dishes, I catalogue idiosyncrasies of a favorite teacher for character traits. Our modern definitions of womanhood, partnership, and motherhood have surely grown beyond Patmore’s Angel, yet many of the same questions remain. Must I choose between making art and making babies? If I prioritize writing, will I fail my family? Does mothering or not mothering affect how my work will be judged, the goals I set, or how much I can achieve? If I had never wanted kids at all, would mother writers let me in their room? Are male writers-in-residence ever asked the same questions? The freedom to choose installs plenty of complicated locks on our doors, and I’m often left fumbling with the keys.

At almost forty, having moved from teaching high school to teaching college, my kids a little older, and my partner now employed, I find myself finally able to answer Woolf’s call with “a room with a lock on the door”—at least for a while. I’ve been awarded a four-week writing residency at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France, supported by the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Katharine Bakeless Nason Endowment. Several months ago, when I received word of my fellowship—my venture into solitude, my vacation from vacuuming—I shared the good news with friends and colleagues, but initial reactions weren’t always congratulatory.

The problem with the question “What about the kids?” is that it assumes the only way to care for my children is to be home, awaiting their needs. It also insinuates that, as a woman, child care falls solely on my shoulders—that my partner, perhaps because of his gender, isn’t as capable. The question also suggests that my children aren’t self-sufficient enough, physically or emotionally, to survive a month without me. I’m happy to say they are both. At eight and thirteen, my daughters are becoming young women of their own, navigating choices, trying on ways of being, walking to friends’ houses solo, and doing their own laundry.

What would Virginia say to the “What about the kids?” question? She’d say it was my choice to become a mother. And she’d be right. She’d say it’s also an authentic choice not to, and she’d be right again. She’d pat my kids’ dear heads, high-five me for my success, and leave my girls outside my residency room’s door. Choosing to be a mother doesn’t mean I have to choose not to be a writer. It just means this complicated path is my own.

Getting out of my life and off to the residency was no easy task. I arrived at D.C.’s Dulles airport for my flight to Paris three hours and twelve minutes after I taught my last university class for the semester. I carried forty-two research essays to be graded, a seventy-page committee report to be proofread, and a professional panel proposal due the next day. Before I left, I created a spreadsheet of each of my daughters’ activities and social events during my absence. My partner inputted all the details into his phone and set alarms for who needed to be where when. I prepaid all the bills. I stocked enough dog food for the month and froze pans of lasagna. I shopped for every bat mitzvah dress and listened to all the piano recital songs. I bought the kids new shoes, knowing they might grow out of them five minutes before they needed to be at an event. I asked family to visit, to pitch in, and to check in. I prewrote letters and mailed them to my kids, and prestamped and addressed envelopes so they could write to me. I checked all the Skype connections and my partner upped my cell-phone plan for unlimited international texting. I coordinated my absence with my dean, department chair, and director.

My strategic withdrawal was careful and extensive. Neither my family nor my life is an enemy from which I’m retreating; on the contrary, my family members are my support troops, cheering on my victory. When I first received the fellowship news, my daughters gave me homemade cards: “Congrats on France, Mommy. We’re proud of you!” My partner listened to my hesitations but gently defused every one of them. My real enemy, I’ve discovered, is how all of my responsibilities fill the head space I need to write. My struggle is to not pit my writing against my mothering, but to give myself permission for both.

It’s true that I’ve run away just a little, but I’ll run back again and again.

In southern France, on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, there are voices in my head I haven’t heard in years. Not since the first draft of my novel, when the characters were so very clear and the plot wasn’t. In my seclusion, I occupy my characters’ interiors, understand their motivations, see their desires, and create them more authentically on the page. As I revise, I’m discovering the book all over again. I wake at dawn and the work pours out of me until my stomach reminds me that even artists need to be fed. I stroll down to the lighthouse near Plage de la Grande Mer for exercise, fresh air, and espresso. My body takes me there, but my mind is still at my desk, still creating.

Woolf and her sister, Vanessa Bell, were frequent visitors to the South of France. They called Cassis, the fishing village my apartment overlooks for the next month, the “Bloomsbury-on-Méditerranée.” Virginia and Vanessa, genius artist sisters, understood the need for community. Making art is so often lonely. Solitude both feeds and exhausts the artist. Even at my most productive, I can only write for half of my waking hours. You need other people to prop you up, to tell you your poem isn’t the worst thing they’ve ever read, to take you for a walk when you’re stuck on draft eight of your novel, to fuel your muse. Then you need them to leave you alone for a good long time while you wrestle your point of view.

My neighbor in residence, the poet Mary Tautin Moloney, who is also a mother, says the best part of the retreat is carrying all the poems and lines around in her head without interruption. When we walk into town together after writing all day or share a bottle of regional rosé, we talk about our art, not our kids. At potlucks with the other fellows, we recommend books, share successes and stumbles, make plans for adventures that we’ll write about later.

I hear my work differently at the residency. Sentences change while I sleep, and I wake to a pouring of words and ideas onto the page. No one interrupts me for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich while I spend hours at my desk, cutting up the structure of an essay until my eyes blur and the order comes into focus. This is my safe space to play, to release the pressure to produce words and pages and remember why I became a writer. It used to be a lot more fun. I’m realizing that it can be again.

Much of my refuge has been filled with books. I’ve read more in a month of residency than I read in all of the previous year. I’ve strolled through the foundation’s library and magically found books I needed exactly when I needed them: Lynn Freed’s The Mirror when I was studying my main character’s interior; Patricia Hampl’s Blue Arabesque when I was answering my agent’s edits about structure; Reminiscences of Leonard Woolf by Roberta Rubenstein when I wanted the story behind the story; and Jennifer Grotz’s translation of Patrice de La Tour du Pin’s Psalms of All My Days, when I needed faith. I’ve read curiously and thoroughly. I’ve reread books from my MFA days and much of Woolf’s work again. I’ve filled myself up with the words of others so that they may power my own.

The truth is that I miss making the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I’m the one who knows which kid doesn’t eat crusts and which one does. I miss their noise and their pudgy (and increasingly less pudgy) arms around my neck. I miss tucking them in at night, hearing the three things they’re grateful for before they drift off to sleep. At bedtime on the evening I packed to leave, through tears my oldest daughter said, “I need you to do this residency more than I need you to stay.” Woolf would be proud of her. So am I. My job as their mother is also to show them how to be women—brave ones—to seek partners who support them, to reach for the things they want, even when it hurts a little.

Leaving my children is difficult for me as a mother just as not writing is hard for me as a writer. Woolf was often prescribed the “rest cure” during episodes of nervousness. Her mental health was always fragile. During her “rest” she wasn’t allowed to read, and she was often restricted from writing. If she protested loudly enough, her doctors and family would let her work on a novel for one hour per day. Such restrictions would be enough to drive any writer insane. At home, it’s hard for me to find the solitude and time a residency allows. Someone can’t find a sock and someone else can’t find the car keys and no one remembers to put out the recycling. At home, I’m not good at closing my bedroom door, at ignoring my family’s questions and needs so that I can write. I do it, of course. Writing is my job, and I always meet deadlines, but when there is no one at my desk at home, my family will find things and remember them on their own. Without me there, they do just fine. I’m the only one who needs to be reminded of this.

At the residency, I run every morning up the steep hills to the base of the nearby limestone cliffs, the Calanques. Sometimes I keep jogging along the coast to Port Miou but often I run back down and sit on the rocks at Plage du Bestouan and watch the water. I have neither a watch nor a phone. I leave when I’m ready and return when I’m done. It is a freedom I’ve forgotten or never knew I had until it was gone. A residency slows down time. The space inside and outside your head encourages you to observe more deeply, to see more clearly, to listen to the world more completely. It fills you up with reserves for the return.

Leonard Woolf cared for Virginia through her bouts with depression, her numerous suicide attempts, and her struggle with what we now know as bipolar disorder. Before Leonard, the duty fell to Vanessa. That’s what a good partner, or family member or close friend, does. They commit and support. And if children come along and you’re an artist, they don’t ask you to choose.

Truly the biggest insult of the “What about the kids?” question is to my partner. Others expect so little of him. If he were a she, would they ask the same? If I were a single mother, would I be met with silent judgment instead? Of course I think about my family while I’m away, but I don’t worry about my partner’s abilities to take care of our children. Neither of us remembers anyone asking, “What about the kids?” while he was finishing his PhD, attending conferences, and traveling on job interviews. The assumption was that I was managing it, and I was. He can too. The assumption should be that my work—as a writer, as a teacher, and as a mother—matters, and that a room of my own is not only necessary but also merited.

The question cuts deep because I’ve been asking it too—both here in France and at home, in my head, at my writing desk, during crowded moments in my classroom.

So, “What about the kids?”

They’ll thrive. And so will I.

Melissa Scholes Young’s work has appeared in Narrative, Ploughshares, Huffington Post, Poet Lore, and other literary journals. She’s a contributing editor for Fiction Writers Review. She teaches at American University in Washington, D.C., and is a Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo fellow.

Top Ten Retreats for Emerging Writers

by

Staff

2.13.19

Retreats can be a vital source of inspiration and support for writers at any stage of their careers. But for those just starting out, an opportunity to take some time away from daily life and devote a few days (or weeks, or months) to writing—to develop and deepen one’s practice, to workshop new pieces, to learn about the publishing industry, and to make lifelong friendships and professional connections—can be invaluable. The following ten retreats, workshop programs, conferences, and festivals are geared especially toward emerging writers.

Cave Canem Retreat 
Cave Canem offers a weeklong retreat for emerging poets of African descent, held annually in June at the University of Pittsburgh in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. The retreat includes workshops, craft talks, readings, and time to write. Tuition is $1,050; the fee for lodging and meals is $590. Scholarships are available based on need. Application fee: $20. Typical deadline: December 21. Cave Canem, 20 Jay Street, Suite 310-A, Brooklyn, NY 11201. (718) 858-0000. www.cavecanempoets.org

Emerging Poets Fellowship Program at Poets House 
Poets House offers ten fellowships from March to June for emerging poets living in New York City. Each fellow receives a $500 honorarium, a $100 travel stipend, and access to weekly workshops, mentoring sessions, craft discussions with visiting poets, and other events at Poets House, located in lower Manhattan’s Battery Park City neighborhood. There is no application fee. Typical deadline: December 1. Poets House, 10 River Terrace, New York, NY 10282. (212) 431-7920. poetshouse.org

Hub City Writers Project 
The Hub City Writers Project offers two fifteen-week residencies each year at the Writers House in Spartanburg, South Carolina, for emerging poets and prose writers who are pursuing a graduate degree in creative writing or who have completed an undergraduate or graduate degree in creative writing within the past five years. Residents are provided with lodging and work space in a historic downtown cottage, as well as a $650 monthly stipend in exchange for community service with Hub City Press or Hub City Bookshop. Application fee: $30. Typical deadline: April 15. Hub City Writers Project, 186 West Main Street, Spartanburg, SC 29306. (864) 557-9349. www.hubcity.org/residencies

Jack Jones Retreat 
The third annual Jack Jones Literary Arts Retreat for emerging women poets, fiction writers, and nonfiction writers of color will be held October 26 through November 8 at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Retreat Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The retreat offers time to write as well as daily master classes and meetings with agents, editors, and women in publishing to promote networking, learning, and engagement. Residents are provided with full tuition, private lodging, writing space, and all meals. Application fee: $35. Deadline: April 20. Jack Jones Literary Arts, P.O. Box 291672, Los Angeles, CA 90029. www.jackjonesliteraryarts.com

Kimbilio Retreat
The Kimbilio Retreat for emerging African American fiction writers will be held July 21 through July 27 at Southern Methodist University in Taos, New Mexico. The retreat offers workshops, craft classes, lectures, readings, and time to write. The cost of lodging and meals ranges from $350 to $700. There is no application fee. Deadline: March 15. www.kimbiliofiction.com

Kundiman Retreat 
The Kundiman Asian American Workshop Retreat is held annually in June at Fordham University’s Rose Hill campus in the Bronx in New York City. The retreat features poetry and fiction workshops, one-on-one mentoring, manuscript consultations, and a public reading. Tuition, which includes lodging and meals, is $375. Application fee: $25. Typical deadline: January 15. Kundiman, 229 West 109th Street, Suite 22, New York, NY 10025. 
www.kundiman.org

Lambda Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices 
The Lambda Literary Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices is held annually in August or September at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. The retreat offers weeklong intensive workshops in poetry, fiction, genre fiction, and nonfiction for LGBTQ writers, along with opportunities to meet publishing industry professionals and build a strong community of peers. The cost of the retreat is $1,650, which includes room and board. Application fee: $25. Typical deadline: February 1. Lambda Literary Foundation, 811 West 7th St, 12th Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90017. (213) 277-5755. 
www.lambdaliterary.org

Starry Night Retreat 
Starry Night Retreat offers one- to eight-week residencies from May through September and from November through March to emerging poets, fiction writers, and creative nonfiction writers in New Mexico. Residents are provided with private lodging, shared studio space, and access to a communal courtyard. The cost of the residency is $900 per week. Financial aid is available. There is no application fee. Admissions are made on a rolling basis. Starry Night Retreat, 718 Van Patten Street, Truth or Consequences, NM 87901. www.starrynightretreat.com

VONA/Voices of Our Nations Workshop
The VONA/Voices of Our Nations Foundation offers one- to two-day workshops for poets, fiction writers, and nonfiction writers of color, held in various locations throughout the year, including New York City, New Orleans, and the San Francisco Bay Area. The 2019 program will feature workshops with Faith Adiele, Daniel José Older, Shay Youngblood, and others. The cost of the workshops ranges from $125 to $450. Registration is first come, first served. www.vonacommunity.org

Writefest: A Festival For Emerging Writers
Writefest: A Festival For Emerging Writers will be held from May 27 through June 2 at Rice University in Houston, Texas. The festival features workshops in poetry and short prose,  as well as presentations, critique sessions, editor panels, author readings, and a literary journal fair. The cost of the conference ranges from $95 for a day pass to $495 for a full-event pass. Student discounts are available. Registration is first come, first served. Writefest, 2000A Edwards Street, Suite 212, Silver Street Studios, Houston, TX, 77001. www.writefesthouston.com 

A Residency of One’s Own: Navigating the Complicated Path to a Writers Retreat

by

Melissa Scholes Young

2.10.16

What about the kids?” they asked, again and again, especially the women, when I shared the news of my upcoming writing residency. To which I thought: “I didn’t stop being a writer when I gave birth; I won’t stop being a mother during my retreat.”

No one asked Virginia Woolf, “What about the kids?” when she sat alone in her study and composed A Room of One’s Own. “A woman must have a room of her own and money if she is to write fiction,” she wrote. It was perhaps easier for Woolf, with her small inheritance and privilege and child-free life. But we all have boundaries to break—Victorian, mental, and otherwise; some are imposed by others, and plenty are our own.

A room of my own seemed unachievable to me at twenty-six, when I read Woolf’s treatise. I was pregnant with my first child. I wanted to be a mother and an artist, and I was also a high school teacher. Rubbing my expanding belly, I birthed my first short story. I began planning my own room, but it was crowded with seven classes of high school students every day and a partner writing his dissertation every night. At thirty-two, there was another baby, another postponement, and more students. I was writing plenty along the way, publishing in magazines and literary journals, and deep into drafting my novel. Even then I knew that my solitary room, free of everyday demands, was necessary, for both the mental and physical retreat it would afford. A writing residency, it seemed, was the only way to find it.

In her essay “Professions for Women,” Woolf warns that we must kill Victorian poet Coventry Patmore’s “Angel in the House,” the ghostly wife who adores chores. The murder of domesticity, Woolf wrote, “was part of the occupation of a woman writer.” Woolf didn’t have diapers to change, but she cared for her father, struggled to manage her staff, and became embroiled in an intimate and ambivalent eighteen-year relationship with her cook. Domesticity took up a lot of space in Woolf’s diary; the sound of scraping dishes and floors being mopped followed her to her room, even if it was her own. She may not have been at the market every day buying her own fish, though she did try and fail once, but managing life took up plenty of her mental energy.

My role as mother, as caregiver, as cook and house manager feeds my work too. My family’s dialogue creeps into my stories. When I’m walking the dog, I restructure plot in my mind. With my hands in a sink of dishes, I catalogue idiosyncrasies of a favorite teacher for character traits. Our modern definitions of womanhood, partnership, and motherhood have surely grown beyond Patmore’s Angel, yet many of the same questions remain. Must I choose between making art and making babies? If I prioritize writing, will I fail my family? Does mothering or not mothering affect how my work will be judged, the goals I set, or how much I can achieve? If I had never wanted kids at all, would mother writers let me in their room? Are male writers-in-residence ever asked the same questions? The freedom to choose installs plenty of complicated locks on our doors, and I’m often left fumbling with the keys.

At almost forty, having moved from teaching high school to teaching college, my kids a little older, and my partner now employed, I find myself finally able to answer Woolf’s call with “a room with a lock on the door”—at least for a while. I’ve been awarded a four-week writing residency at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France, supported by the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Katharine Bakeless Nason Endowment. Several months ago, when I received word of my fellowship—my venture into solitude, my vacation from vacuuming—I shared the good news with friends and colleagues, but initial reactions weren’t always congratulatory.

The problem with the question “What about the kids?” is that it assumes the only way to care for my children is to be home, awaiting their needs. It also insinuates that, as a woman, child care falls solely on my shoulders—that my partner, perhaps because of his gender, isn’t as capable. The question also suggests that my children aren’t self-sufficient enough, physically or emotionally, to survive a month without me. I’m happy to say they are both. At eight and thirteen, my daughters are becoming young women of their own, navigating choices, trying on ways of being, walking to friends’ houses solo, and doing their own laundry.

What would Virginia say to the “What about the kids?” question? She’d say it was my choice to become a mother. And she’d be right. She’d say it’s also an authentic choice not to, and she’d be right again. She’d pat my kids’ dear heads, high-five me for my success, and leave my girls outside my residency room’s door. Choosing to be a mother doesn’t mean I have to choose not to be a writer. It just means this complicated path is my own.

Getting out of my life and off to the residency was no easy task. I arrived at D.C.’s Dulles airport for my flight to Paris three hours and twelve minutes after I taught my last university class for the semester. I carried forty-two research essays to be graded, a seventy-page committee report to be proofread, and a professional panel proposal due the next day. Before I left, I created a spreadsheet of each of my daughters’ activities and social events during my absence. My partner inputted all the details into his phone and set alarms for who needed to be where when. I prepaid all the bills. I stocked enough dog food for the month and froze pans of lasagna. I shopped for every bat mitzvah dress and listened to all the piano recital songs. I bought the kids new shoes, knowing they might grow out of them five minutes before they needed to be at an event. I asked family to visit, to pitch in, and to check in. I prewrote letters and mailed them to my kids, and prestamped and addressed envelopes so they could write to me. I checked all the Skype connections and my partner upped my cell-phone plan for unlimited international texting. I coordinated my absence with my dean, department chair, and director.

My strategic withdrawal was careful and extensive. Neither my family nor my life is an enemy from which I’m retreating; on the contrary, my family members are my support troops, cheering on my victory. When I first received the fellowship news, my daughters gave me homemade cards: “Congrats on France, Mommy. We’re proud of you!” My partner listened to my hesitations but gently defused every one of them. My real enemy, I’ve discovered, is how all of my responsibilities fill the head space I need to write. My struggle is to not pit my writing against my mothering, but to give myself permission for both.

It’s true that I’ve run away just a little, but I’ll run back again and again.

In southern France, on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, there are voices in my head I haven’t heard in years. Not since the first draft of my novel, when the characters were so very clear and the plot wasn’t. In my seclusion, I occupy my characters’ interiors, understand their motivations, see their desires, and create them more authentically on the page. As I revise, I’m discovering the book all over again. I wake at dawn and the work pours out of me until my stomach reminds me that even artists need to be fed. I stroll down to the lighthouse near Plage de la Grande Mer for exercise, fresh air, and espresso. My body takes me there, but my mind is still at my desk, still creating.

Woolf and her sister, Vanessa Bell, were frequent visitors to the South of France. They called Cassis, the fishing village my apartment overlooks for the next month, the “Bloomsbury-on-Méditerranée.” Virginia and Vanessa, genius artist sisters, understood the need for community. Making art is so often lonely. Solitude both feeds and exhausts the artist. Even at my most productive, I can only write for half of my waking hours. You need other people to prop you up, to tell you your poem isn’t the worst thing they’ve ever read, to take you for a walk when you’re stuck on draft eight of your novel, to fuel your muse. Then you need them to leave you alone for a good long time while you wrestle your point of view.

My neighbor in residence, the poet Mary Tautin Moloney, who is also a mother, says the best part of the retreat is carrying all the poems and lines around in her head without interruption. When we walk into town together after writing all day or share a bottle of regional rosé, we talk about our art, not our kids. At potlucks with the other fellows, we recommend books, share successes and stumbles, make plans for adventures that we’ll write about later.

I hear my work differently at the residency. Sentences change while I sleep, and I wake to a pouring of words and ideas onto the page. No one interrupts me for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich while I spend hours at my desk, cutting up the structure of an essay until my eyes blur and the order comes into focus. This is my safe space to play, to release the pressure to produce words and pages and remember why I became a writer. It used to be a lot more fun. I’m realizing that it can be again.

Much of my refuge has been filled with books. I’ve read more in a month of residency than I read in all of the previous year. I’ve strolled through the foundation’s library and magically found books I needed exactly when I needed them: Lynn Freed’s The Mirror when I was studying my main character’s interior; Patricia Hampl’s Blue Arabesque when I was answering my agent’s edits about structure; Reminiscences of Leonard Woolf by Roberta Rubenstein when I wanted the story behind the story; and Jennifer Grotz’s translation of Patrice de La Tour du Pin’s Psalms of All My Days, when I needed faith. I’ve read curiously and thoroughly. I’ve reread books from my MFA days and much of Woolf’s work again. I’ve filled myself up with the words of others so that they may power my own.

The truth is that I miss making the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I’m the one who knows which kid doesn’t eat crusts and which one does. I miss their noise and their pudgy (and increasingly less pudgy) arms around my neck. I miss tucking them in at night, hearing the three things they’re grateful for before they drift off to sleep. At bedtime on the evening I packed to leave, through tears my oldest daughter said, “I need you to do this residency more than I need you to stay.” Woolf would be proud of her. So am I. My job as their mother is also to show them how to be women—brave ones—to seek partners who support them, to reach for the things they want, even when it hurts a little.

Leaving my children is difficult for me as a mother just as not writing is hard for me as a writer. Woolf was often prescribed the “rest cure” during episodes of nervousness. Her mental health was always fragile. During her “rest” she wasn’t allowed to read, and she was often restricted from writing. If she protested loudly enough, her doctors and family would let her work on a novel for one hour per day. Such restrictions would be enough to drive any writer insane. At home, it’s hard for me to find the solitude and time a residency allows. Someone can’t find a sock and someone else can’t find the car keys and no one remembers to put out the recycling. At home, I’m not good at closing my bedroom door, at ignoring my family’s questions and needs so that I can write. I do it, of course. Writing is my job, and I always meet deadlines, but when there is no one at my desk at home, my family will find things and remember them on their own. Without me there, they do just fine. I’m the only one who needs to be reminded of this.

At the residency, I run every morning up the steep hills to the base of the nearby limestone cliffs, the Calanques. Sometimes I keep jogging along the coast to Port Miou but often I run back down and sit on the rocks at Plage du Bestouan and watch the water. I have neither a watch nor a phone. I leave when I’m ready and return when I’m done. It is a freedom I’ve forgotten or never knew I had until it was gone. A residency slows down time. The space inside and outside your head encourages you to observe more deeply, to see more clearly, to listen to the world more completely. It fills you up with reserves for the return.

Leonard Woolf cared for Virginia through her bouts with depression, her numerous suicide attempts, and her struggle with what we now know as bipolar disorder. Before Leonard, the duty fell to Vanessa. That’s what a good partner, or family member or close friend, does. They commit and support. And if children come along and you’re an artist, they don’t ask you to choose.

Truly the biggest insult of the “What about the kids?” question is to my partner. Others expect so little of him. If he were a she, would they ask the same? If I were a single mother, would I be met with silent judgment instead? Of course I think about my family while I’m away, but I don’t worry about my partner’s abilities to take care of our children. Neither of us remembers anyone asking, “What about the kids?” while he was finishing his PhD, attending conferences, and traveling on job interviews. The assumption was that I was managing it, and I was. He can too. The assumption should be that my work—as a writer, as a teacher, and as a mother—matters, and that a room of my own is not only necessary but also merited.

The question cuts deep because I’ve been asking it too—both here in France and at home, in my head, at my writing desk, during crowded moments in my classroom.

So, “What about the kids?”

They’ll thrive. And so will I.

Melissa Scholes Young’s work has appeared in Narrative, Ploughshares, Huffington Post, Poet Lore, and other literary journals. She’s a contributing editor for Fiction Writers Review. She teaches at American University in Washington, D.C., and is a Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo fellow.

Publishing Your First Book: Advice for First-Time Authors

by

Shelly Oria

2.14.18

Publishing a book, especially your first book, is an experience that can mess with your head—regardless of how your book “does” in the world. When my first book, a collection of short stories titled New York 1, Tel Aviv 0, was published in November 2014, many people in my life assumed I’d enter a state of total bliss. And to some extent I assumed the same. A decade earlier, I’d moved to New York City from Tel Aviv, where I grew up, and started translating my work from Hebrew in the hopes of getting into an MFA program. Every step along the way felt hard-earned: learning how to write fiction in my second language, graduating, getting my first few stories published, signing with an agent. So why wouldn’t I be blissed out that it all came to fruition, that Farrar, Straus and Giroux was publishing my book? And I was, or part of me was. I also felt too anxious to breathe, which is perhaps understandable. And I also felt sad—at times extremely sad—which seemed much less understandable.

In many ways, my book “did well.” It was nominated for several awards, was reviewed by both the New York Times and the New York Times Book Review—a fairly rare occurrence for a debut story collection and an accomplishment that certainly exceeded my expectations—and it got quite a bit of attention in Israel, including a cover story with a major newspaper, which encouraged my second-grade teacher to track me down and prompted some people to send my parents flowers. But to be perfectly honest, through most of it I was pretty miserable. I’m not shy by nature, so doing many events and going on a book tour, even appearing on TV, wasn’t the cause of my angst. I felt extremely vulnerable and exposed. This thing I’d poured so much of myself into, labored over for years, was now out in the big wild world, so completely out of my control, and strangers were having opinions about it and sharing them: in a review, in a tweet, in an e-mail. Even in the best of all possible scenarios (a glowing review, for instance), I wouldn’t rest for long, because soon another opinion could come in through one of the channels—and maybe it would be terrible? I knew that as a debut author of a story collection I should be grateful whenever anyone cared enough to say anything at all about my book; no matter the content, the attention could help sales. But that awareness meant only that on top of feeling miserable, I felt guilty for not feeling grateful. And more important, it meant that I wanted everything that was happening not to stop but rather to have happened, which is to say that for long months after my book came out, I wished I could leave the present moment. Trying to escape your life is no way to live.

By the time my book was published, I’d already had my private practice as a life and creativity coach for about five years. I work primarily with artists and writers, so the experience with my book has reshaped the way I approach my clients when they face similar challenges. Recently a friend reached out to me for some coaching advice before her debut novel came out; I compiled a list of what I now consider the core principles to navigating book publication, in the hopes of helping her and others avoid some of my mistakes.

1. Be proud. Life is going to pull on you all kinds of ways, but the most important truth is this: You wrote a book. A whole damn book! Remember how you used to think that would never happen for you? Remember all the times you almost gave up? Somehow, somehow you not only finished the thing but also got it published. In all likelihood, you went through hell in the process, but you powered through. That required a lot of work. It also required faith, and energy, and love, and then more work, and then luck, and then other people’s faith in you and in your book. It required some stupidity, too—the beautiful kind that makes us keep going when it doesn’t “make sense.” Because at some point along the way, someone close to you probably suggested that writing this book, and perhaps writing in general, wasn’t the best use of your time. But you kept going. Whatever it took in your case—you did it, and that’s kind of amazing if you think about it. Can you take a moment now to think about it? Try to locate this thought in your body, consider it your core, and return your attention to that particular spot every time you face a challenge related to your book. Or write a sentence that summarizes this notion—all caps—and make it your screen saver. Or find an object that captures that sentiment and take it with you wherever you go, or hold it close to your chest for a minute every day. Or set a daily alert on your phone to remind yourself. Or ask a friend to remind you. You get the idea—make a commitment to stay actively connected to the fact of your accomplishment. Make a commitment to do that through whatever turmoil or feelings a day brings—to return to this truth and feel, even for a few fleeting seconds, your pride.

2. Prioritize self-care. Just do it, even if it makes you feel guilty or silly. Even if it feels futile or frivolous. It isn’t. For the next few months, commit to taking good care of yourself—whatever that means to you on any given day. Sometimes it means going to bed early, and sometimes it means going to bed late so you can spend quality time with a friend; sometimes it means taking a bath, and sometimes it means forcing yourself to write that e-mail that’s been weighing on you. Most of the time it means not giving yourself shit—for smoking after you quit forever, for getting impatient with your grandma, for dropping the ball on that essay your publicist pushed you to write. I’m not suggesting you treat your body or your loved ones (or your publicist) poorly; I’m only saying: Don’t forget the context. The context is that whether it feels true or not on any given day, this is a time of extreme vulnerability in your life. So be kind to yourself. Be a good friend to yourself. Don’t be an asshole.

And stay committed to self-care for far longer than you think is necessary. It’s going to be so easy to tell yourself a couple of months from now that, okay, your book came out, and the experience was great in these ways and disappointing in these other ways and whatever, now it’s time to move on, and you should mostly be over all these feelings. No. The effects of this particular life event run deep and last a while. Whether we understand this phenomenon or not doesn’t really matter; what matters is that we recognize it and respond. And taking care of yourself is a response; it tells your psyche that you haven’t forgotten that it just went through a trying time. When you take a day off from your day job (if that’s a possibility), or go for a run, or pick up some flowers on your way home, you’re telling the creative part of you that you’re not blind to its needs. That’s the part you’re hoping will show up all refreshed and ready to work when you announce it’s time for your next book, so it seems wise to stay on good terms.

3. Journal, every day if you can. For some people this might be part of self-care (I know it is for me), but I think it’s important enough to list in its own right. Because during this time it’s likely that all kinds of public events will take place, and that pressures will be put on you, and that conversations will play out around and/or about you. And all of these are inherently external—they focus on other people’s views of your work, opinions about your work, and reactions to your work. Even if every single one of these reactions is positive, you will still feel a little blinking arrow originating in the center of your body and pointing out; much of your energy will be spent on other people’s thoughts. Journaling is one foolproof way to stay connected to your own voice. But you don’t have to write about your experience during this time; in fact, you don’t have to write about anything in particular. You only have to listen to your own mind and write down some words.

4. Write. This is a tip that seems impossible nine times out of ten and was certainly impossible for me, but if and when it is possible for you: Throw yourself into a new project, into a story that may or may not pan out, into any piece of writing. There is no better remedy in the known world for difficult postpublication feelings. Most theories of creativity discuss the process-product divide in some way (using this or similar terminology), and the work we’re asked to do in this context is to shift our consciousness back to process whenever it veers toward product. (A classic and familiar example: writers worrying about whether or not their book would ever find an agent/publisher/audience way before they’ve finished—or at times even begun—writing the thing. That’s as ridiculous as worrying about your child’s Harvard application when you’re five weeks pregnant.) It’s almost always solid creative advice: Get back to process! But the months following your book publication are by definition all about “product.” It’s a time when you focus on the finished project and its reception. And even when that focus depresses the spirit, or feels toxic, you can’t shift, you can’t move toward process, because there is no more process with this book—it has culminated. Which is why the only available cure is more process…with new work. Because for our psyches it’s pretty much all the same: As long as we find a way to play, to make, to imagine, to zero in on the creative process itself, a sense of balance will be restored.

5. Remember that the stakes are lower than they may seem. Everything matters less than you think. I hope you don’t find this demoralizing; I think it can bring relief. Publishing a book is a big deal, and in some ways your life will change. In other ways, nothing will change at all. You might know this, but you will forget. On certain days, some aspect of things will seem terribly important: that your name is missing from the shortlist of an award, that a radio interview went poorly, that you never got that radio interview even though it’s your hometown. It will seem like a big deal, but it won’t be. Try to zoom out. See this book, and then all your writing throughout the years, and then your whole beautiful life—everything that has led up to this moment, and everything that’s yet to come. Suddenly the moment is relatively small. It appears so big when we’re in it, but it is always, in fact, tiny. This also means that when you truly don’t want to go to an event—or give an interview, or write an essay—well, just don’t. Do you imagine yourself on your deathbed saying, “If only I had trekked to Bushwick for that reading in 2018?”

6. Be mindful of your relationship with praise and appraisal. I’d flat-out say, “Don’t read the reviews,” except I know writers who find reading reviews helpful. You need to figure out what works best for you. But I would argue that mindfulness is crucial with this: Check in with yourself after you read a review (even if it’s a rave). See if you might need to talk to a friend, or if taking a kickboxing class suddenly seems super appealing. Stay in that kind of conversation instead of pretending that what you just read (again, good or bad—in some ways it’s all the same) has not affected you. And even if you decide to follow the mainstream reviews, there is never, ever a reason for a writer to read the reviews of random people on the Internet. Amazon, Goodreads, and certainly any and all comment fields are always 100 percent none of your business.

7. Accept that your experience is far less fact-based than it seems to be. Do you imagine that you’re disappointed only because you didn’t get reviewed by the New York Times? I’m suggesting that even if you had, you’d have been disappointed by the review. If the Times gushed about you, you’d have been devastated that your book—a book gushed about by the New York Times—didn’t sell well. There’s always something to be proud of and grateful for, and there’s always something that feels devastating. So don’t tell yourself that you’re feeling however you’re feeling because of this review or that event. You’re feeling however you’re feeling because publishing a book is kind of a fucked-up experience.

8. Don’t isolate. Talk to your friends, particularly your writer friends. There’s no shame in the joy and no shame in the sadness, the highs and the lows. Don’t be modest when good things happen, and try not to be alone when you’re feeling crushed. So many people have ridden the book-publishing roller coaster before, and they understand what you’re going through. Give them a chance to support you. I have faith in and gratitude for the writing community because so often in my life, writers who didn’t know me offered help or solace or advice. I try to pay it forward. Don’t hesitate to reach out to other writers. Dare to be vulnerable. Rely on your community. And enjoy the ride. 

 

Shelly Oria is the author of New York 1, Tel Aviv 0 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), which earned nominations for a Lambda Literary Award and the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction, among other honors. Recently she coauthored a digital novella, CLEAN, commissioned by WeTransfer and McSweeney’s, which received two Lovie Awards from the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. Oria lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she codirects the Writer’s Forum at the Pratt Institute and has a private practice as a life and creativity coach. Her website is www.shellyoria.com.

5 Over 50: 2021

by

Staff

10.13.21

In this, our sixth annual feature on authors whose first books arrived a little later on what we are often led to believe is the timeline for a debut author, we reaffirm our stance on the notion that youth is a bellwether of literary excellence: It is time to reset the clock. Better yet, let’s just throw the clock away. It is well past time to stop using “new and emerging” as a synonym for “young,” to stop considering age as some kind of helpful gauge of new literary talent. Instead, we should marvel at the countless different routes writers take on their way to publication, such as the ones traveled by this year’s 5 Over 50, including seventy-one-year-old debut author Vinod Busjeet, who reminds us that “you’re never too old to publish that debut novel.”

Here are excerpts from the debut books by this year’s 5 Over 50. 

 

Calabash Stories (Pleiades Press, April 2021) by Jeffrey J. Higa
An Indian Among los Indígenas (Heyday Books, April 2021) by Ursula Pike 
The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book (Mad Creek Books/Ohio State University Press, May 2021) by Megan Culhane Galbraith
Wordly Things (Milkweed Editions, June 2021) by Michael Kleber-Diggs
Silent Winds, Dry Seas (Doubleday, August 2021) by Vinod Busjeet

 

Jeffrey J. Higa, author of Calabash Stories published in April by Pleiades Press. 

 

 

The Shadow Artist

The Shadow Artist knew himself to be a relic. A walking anachronism in the forgotten uniform of his profession: the black top hat, the formal doublet and waistcoat, the black bowtie. He knew the cartoonish figure he cut, a wandering aristocrat dragged from the previous century, traveling the red dirt roads from sugar plantation to sugar plantation in West Oahu. And yet, all of this—his clothing, his art, his manner—he assumed with a solemnity bordering on the sacred, as if his very existence were some kind of offering to a deity long discredited. This reverence silenced those who might ridicule him, and instead, they looked on in silent curiosity, stopped in the midst of their activities, waiting for him to pass before restarting the sweep of their lives.

He had once made his rounds in the cooling heights of Mānoa, received at front doors and ushered into homes with the fuss due a visiting regent. Girls would don their finest dresses, mothers would slick back the hair of their unruly sons, even fathers would venture down in their Sunday best for a session with the Shadow Artist. He had used the finest French papers then, blanc et noir, ordered from a distributor in Tahiti, and after hanging the white sheets behind his subject, he would create shadow profiles from whatever illumination was available: candle, gas lamp, and later, electricity. He would then sit with the subject and talk with him or her for nearly an hour as he cut constantly, reducing the white life-sized outlines smaller and smaller until the very last minute, when he slipped a black sheet under the white and cut the final portrait. In this way he had been different from his colleagues, competitors who boasted of their speed—“Portraits cut in under ten seconds! Families in under a minute!”—and relied on their flashing scissors and scraps of flying black paper for their drama. The Shadow Artist relied on the subtle drama of transformation, the movement from rough outlines to definitive portraits, from working white to final black. He allowed his subjects to talk about themselves, their words shaping changes to a line here, a minimizing of features there, until he revealed to them the silhouette that they themselves had always desired. 

His colleagues had ridiculed him for it, for in their time, they could make more in fifteen minutes than he could make in a day, but here, now, it was this difference that made him the last. He watched them get squeezed out of the piers where the cruise ships docked, and replaced on the downtown street corners by dabblers in what would come to be known as photography. At first, the Shadow Artist believed that there would always be a place for his skills beside this new dirty science with its arcane processes, stinking chemicals, and exploding elements. But people seemed to clamor for these frozen moments of time, these portraits of merciless detail, so unlike his timeless silhouettes with details combed and edited over with an eye to eternity.

Now all he had left were his weekly appointments at the plantation death houses in the sugarcane fields of West Oahu. These sojourns, another relic from earlier times, were at the behest of the Japanese and Filipino labor unions who paid him a small remuneration for capturing the likenesses and personal histories of their valetudinary members. He mailed this information once a week to the unions, where, eventually, the information would be used in the obituary sections of the Filipino- and Japanese-language newspapers. The Shadow Artist did not know why he was still on the union payroll—even the newspapers would not print silhouettes anymore—but he figured that he was being tolerated out of pity, not unlike the pity shown to the residents of the death houses. These unmarried, family-less men who had worked themselves until they broke and had lost all of their money to whoring, gambling, and foolish investments had nowhere else to go and lived out the remainder of their lives in the communal charity of the death houses. As a younger man, the Shadow Artist had contemplated the death houses with a kind of superstitious dread, but now, nearly the same age as these residents, he approached them with almost an obscene comfort as the final witness to these men whispering out their lives without notice—a fitting metaphor, he felt, for how he and his art would go.

 

From Calabash Stories by Jeffrey J. Higa. Copyright © 2021 by Jeffrey J. Higa. Reprinted by permission of Pleiades Press.  

 

Read Jeffrey J. Higa’s essay about writing Calabash Stories in the November/December 2021 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Ursula Pike, author of An Indian Among los Indígenas: A Native Travel Memoir, published in April by Heyday Books. (Credit: Stephanie Macias Gibson.)

 

I arrived in La Paz as four rum and Cokes joined forces with an altitude-induced headache. The other volunteers in the group had accepted the airline’s complimentary drinks, and I assumed this was what people did on international flights. Now I stood in the tiny airport that teetered on the rim of the bowl-shaped valley of the city, feeling exhausted and unprepared. Wood-paneled walls didn’t keep out the chilly air blowing across the high plateau. The T-shirt I had put on the night before in Miami provided no warmth. I forced myself to stand up straight despite wanting to lie down under something soft and warm. It was 7 a.m., and I was thirteen thousand feet above sea level.

I stepped into a quickly forming line leading to a Bolivian immigration official. His pale pockmarked face and broad unsmiling cheeks made me wonder whether he was part Indian. Native. Indigenous. Bolivia had four million Indigenous people. That was almost twice as many Natives as in the United States. In Bolivia, Indians were the majority. I bit my lip to keep from grinning.

The Bolivian official scanned passports without a greeting or a smile, quickly looking at each person’s face, then back at the passport. I stepped in front of the table where he sat and pulled my stiff passport out of the fanny pack my mother had given me before I left Oregon. Behind him was a shawl-sized painting of the red, yellow, and green Bolivian flag.

The other volunteers shuffled toward the immigration official. I had met them only forty-eight hours earlier, but I already knew exactly how many brown people were in the group. It was a tally I always made. A cute Latina from Texas, a midcareer Mexicano, a bleary-eyed Puerto Rican man, an athletic Filipina from California, and a broad-shouldered Filipino who was quiet except for the occasional self-deprecating joke. I didn’t like the term minority, but in this case we were. The remaining twenty volunteers looked like those combinations of Western and Eastern European identities that qualify as white in the United States. Did anyone wonder what I was? My dark brown hair and olive skin gave me a vaguely ethnic look. Teachers and curious grocery clerks usually guessed Hispanic or maybe Greek. My identity was a tailless donkey they had to pin the right kind of brown to.

The immigration official looked up at my face and then down at my passport. I was excited to be standing in front of a Bolivian for the first time, but the formality of the moment made me nervous. His thick eyebrows moved up and down as he scrutinized me. Then he stamped it, handed it back to me, and reached for the next one. That wasn’t what I had expected.

“Thank you for coming to my country. I can tell you are more serious than any of these gringos,” said No One. I looked around at the other officials. Didn’t my sincerity show through my olive skin? Maybe it was too early in the morning. Maybe they were rushed. I waited an extra moment to give him a chance for a second look or a nod of his head. Certainly, the Bolivians would eventually recognize that I was different from the others arriving from the United States that day. They would see that because I was an American Indian, we shared a connection. Coming to a country like Bolivia, a country full of Native people, had been the secret wish held in my heart as I filled in the spaces on the Peace Corps application. Couldn’t the Bolivians see that we shared a connection? Couldn’t they see that my commitment was more meaningful because I was Native? The person behind me sighed, and I reluctantly moved forward.

The training group’s luggage sat in a heap on the floor. My backpack, which had seemed so big in the REI outlet store back in Portland, now looked ridiculously small. The tiny straps and water-resistant pockets held two years’ worth of tightly packed clothes and supplies. As the other volunteers pulled their luggage from the pile, I tried to recall who everyone was. Even after ice-breakers and introductions, I could not remember anyone’s name.

Bursting leather suitcase—the athletic girl from California.

Floral-print handbag—Latina chick from Texas.

Worn North Face backpack—blond guy from Minnesota who had been smiling nonstop for two days.

The woman from Texas pulled another suitcase and more floral-print bags from the pile. Her name was Laura. The impracticality of her luggage choice made me love her. I had found my first friend. I hadn’t known what to bring, but had assumed everyone else had it all figured out. Laura must have brought everything she owned in case she needed it. She was an interior designer from El Paso, which sounded exotic to me, but she assured me it wasn’t. With a Marilyn Monroe figure and the longest eyelashes I had ever seen, she was glamorous and the opposite of what I expected a Peace Corps volunteer to look like.

“Don’t tell anyone, but I’m not fluent in Spanish,” she confessed over beers in Miami. Her mother taught her to speak English without an accent. We’d both been raised by mothers who taught their children to be proud of their heritage without appearing too “ethnic.”

“I won’t, if you don’t tell them I’m too fat,” I said. She laughed long enough to erase the embarrassment attached to the invitation letter informing me that I was three pounds above the acceptable weight for my height. For months, I worried there would be a scale at the airport with a trap door underneath ready to whoosh me back home if the wrong number appeared.

We followed the blond volunteer with the smooth southern drawl who was leading the way into the main part of the terminal. Round faces and short women wearing bulky skirts were everywhere. Long, dark braids hung down from black bowler hats that sat askew on their heads. They were Aymara women, Indigenous celebrities. Like the immigration official, none of them gave me a second look. I hoped that once I was apart from this gaggle of North Americans, I would be noticed.

In the parking lot on the high plateau where the airport stood, the sun felt a few miles away. I shaded my eyes with my hand and squinted to see a rumbling school bus waiting to take us to the Peace Corps offices. That’s when I saw Mt. Illimani. The mountain’s triple peaks loomed over the valley beneath us. It peeped over the rim of La Paz like the Abominable Snowmonster in the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Christmas special. The wind pushed into the side of my face, whipping my hair from the barrette holding it down. Between the sunshine and the frozen wind, I was now fully awake. My heart beat faster from a combination of altitude and excitement. I was finally standing in Bolivia.

 

From An Indian Among los Indígenas: A Native Travel Memoir by Ursula Pike (Heyday, 2021).  

 

Read Ursula Pike’s essay about writing An Indian Among los Indígenas: A Travel Memoir in the November/December 2021 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Megan Culhane Galbraith, author The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book, published by Mad Creek Books/Ohio State University Press in May 2021. (Credit: Beth Mickalonis)

 

Prologue

Children play to control the world. When I was a child, I wanted to control my world because as an adoptee I felt I had no control. I created small universes populated by all sorts of figures: friends to have tea with, monsters to defeat, and new miniature realms to explore. It was empowering to make all the decisions, so I built dioramas and imagined myself into another life. It didn’t matter that the stage was tiny. These were worlds into which I could disappear.

I’d just given birth to my first son when I found my birth mother, Ursula. I have changed her name to respect her request for privacy. I was twenty-nine years old. I learned she’d become pregnant with me and was sent away to a Catholic home for unwed mothers—The Guild of the Infant Saviour—in Manhattan.

Years later, I began playing with a tin dollhouse I’d found at a local antique shop; A ’60s-era Louis Marx “Marxie Mansion” of the same time period in which Ursula was sent away to have me. I found a set of dolls from that era called The Campus Cuties. They were made from molded hard plastic like the toy soldiers of the time. I purchased some from eBay and then Etsy. The dolls had vacant stares and bullet bras like tiny, hyper-sexualized blank slates. Little girls had painted some of my favorites: their eyes black blobs; their clothing peeling off. I find them weirdly endearing. Their arms and legs are frozen in position and their names imply the roles society cast for women in the ’50s and ’60s—“Nighty Nite,” “Lodge Girl,” “Stormy Weather,” “Dinner for Two,” and “Shopping Anyone?” If The Campus Cuties were rendered in the flesh they’d have 40-inch inseams, 12-inch waists, and breasts the size of beach balls.

I hadn’t been given dolls to play with as a child—no Barbie, or Baby Alive. I had no doll to feed, nor did I ever change a doll’s diaper. Yet here I was a grown woman (a feminist!) besotted with these booby, leggy, plastic dolls. I was also in love with the tiny, delicate baby dolls. They too were made from plastic, although they were fragile as eggshells and the size of a three-month-old fetus. I collected them with obsessive zeal.

The dollhouse became a visual art project called The Dollhouse. I staged the Cuties and babies in household situations and photographed them from the outside looking in. I realized it was a voyeuristic way of seeing a situation from an angle of removal. It gave me the space I needed to examine my adopted life through a different lens. It emphasized a dystopia perhaps that was right there before my eyes.

I’d been the subject of many photographs—my dad being the photographer—but now, playing with these dolls, I realized I’d also been an object: a doll. Behind the lens of my camera, I am the director of my narrative. I’ve reclaimed a sense of control. Play calmed me down, allowed me to turn off my brain, and when I did, thoughts flooded in; memories returned. I became curiouser and curiouser. I began to ask uncomfortable questions. A window opened to a new way of seeing my reality. Ursula and I have now known each other for nearly twenty-five years, and after hearing her tell me stories—shot through her lens of memory, grief, and trauma—I realize we have more in common than just the circumstance of my birth: we had both disappeared into our fantasies. Mine was tiny, imaginary, and voluntary; hers was all too real.

We’d both been pregnant with shame.

“No one gets a dollhouse to play at reality,” said the child psychologist Erik Erickson, “but reality seeps in everywhere when we play.”

As an adult, I see myself in early photographs and can identify the feeling of being fragile, helpless, and adrift. Like many adoptees, I’ve moved through depression, suicidal ideation, an eating disorder, anxiety, and sexual acting out. I’ve identified gashes of grief and shame: wounds I’d been licking instead of healing.

Adoption is what author Nancy Verrier called “the primal wound,” and the resulting feelings of abandonment, shame, and loss are due to the severed connection between birth mother and child when a baby is taken away.

“Children are innocent before they are corrupted by adults,” said Erickson, “although we know some of them are not and those children—the ones capable of arranging and rearranging the furniture and dolls in any dollhouse—are the most dangerous of all. Power and innocence together are explosive.”

I realize now that I don’t need to apologize for my exist ence.

The Dollhouse became a lens through which I could see my birth mother and myself. I could safely question my personal history and interrogate the myths of adoption, identity, feminism, and home. As an adopted child, I’d felt like a thing to be played with instead of a person with her own identity. I’d felt looked at, but not seen. I liked the idea of reclaiming what home meant to me by playing in my dollhouse because I’d never felt truly at home anywhere, not even in my own body.

Holding those fragile plastic babies in the palm of my hand made me realize I had to hold myself with the same delicacy.

Play helped me unlock ways of expressing the paradox of my identity as an adoptee while exploring intergenerational trauma, erasure, abandonment, and the myths and family lore that factor into many adoptees’ origin stories. The Dollhouse photos in this book are recreating the original photos I curated from my Adopted Child’s Memory Book, among other places. The original photos—like artifacts—appear at the end of each essay.

In The Dollhouse I created a world where women rule on a 1:12-scale: a portal to imagine myself into my birth mother’s life and her into mine.

Our stories are fractured.

Our narratives double back on themselves like an ouro boros swallowing its tail.

 

From Megan Culhane Galbraith’s The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book, used by permission of Mad Creek Books, an imprint of The Ohio State University Press.  

 

Read Megan Culhane Galbraith’s essay about writing The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book in the November/December 2021 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Michael Kleber-Diggs, author of Wordly Things, published by Milkweed Editions in June 2021. (Credit: Ayanna Muata)

 

I Love My Neighbors As I Love Myself

I drive around admonishing strangers.
Hurry up! I tell them. Or, Wear a helmet!
Kids needing parental guidance get it from me.
Teens in black clothes at midnight, sensed
but not seen like owls, receive my words as care.
When I spy an elderly woman with her coat worn loose,
I don’t hesitate to yell: Button up! I want the best
for her. I learned of love in harsh commands, curt
rebukes and tired, ravenous hands. The rearview
holds ancestral eyes, ravaged, not mine; the hard
hand sending the window down isn’t mine—its
mine. Love is history plus desire. Love is dominion.
It is supposed to attack you. When you send it out,
it stings you back like a slap of cold air.
Sometimes it arrives in the form of a man,
driving away, shouting.

 

Gloria Mundi

Come to my funeral dressed as you
would for an autumn walk in the woods.  

Arrive on your schedule; I give you permission
to be late, even without good cause.

If my day arrives when you had other plans, please
proceed with them instead. Celebrate me

there—keep dancing. Tend your gardens. Live
well. Don’t stop. Think of me forever assigned

to a period, a place, a people. Remember me
in stories—not the first time we met, not the last,

a time in between. Our moment here is small.
I am too—a worldly thing among worldly things—

one part per seven billion. Make me smaller still. 
Repurpose my body. Mix me with soil and seed,

compost for a sapling. Make my remains useful,
wondrous. Let me bloom and recede, grow

and decay, let me be lovely yet
temporal, like memories, like mahogany. 

 

From Worldly Things by Michael Kleber-Diggs (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2021). Copyright © 2021 by Michael Kleber-Diggs. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions. milkweed.org

 

Read Michael Kleber-Diggs’s essay about writing Worldly Things in the November/December 2021 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine.

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Vinod Busjeet, author of Silent Winds, Dry Seas, published by Doubleday in August 2021. (Credit: Sushant Sehgal)

 

After a night of howling winds and buffeting rain, we spent February 27, 1960, indoors, like most Mauritians. In the morning, a police car announced by loudspeaker that a Class 4 warning—the highest level of alert—had been issued. Cyclone Carol had swept Saint Brandon Island, three hundred miles northeast of Mauritius, and winds of at least 120 miles per hour would hit our island.

We were all anxious. All the precautions that could be taken had been taken. Throughout the day, the winds grew more violent and the rain more intense.

At dinnertime, Uncle Ram opened the bottle bought at la boutique Dokter. At eight thirty, the electricity went off. At around nine, he thundered, “Shiv, did you ask Vishnu what he thought of the Royal College?”

“He told me he liked it,” Papa replied.

“That boy is destined for England,” said Uncle Ram. “You wait and see: he’ll come back with an Englishwoman.”

Mama looked at Papa in a way that clearly signaled that he should respond firmly to this.

“Don’t talk like that. He is only ten,” Papa said.

“He has the brain of a fourteen-year-old.”

Auntie Ranee interjected: “Stop drinking and talking rubbish. People are worried about the cyclone.”

“Worried about the cyclone? The Bhushans and the community are worried about their purity. Vishnu, I have a better idea. Englishwomen are too boring for you—bring back a European. Brigitte Bardot or Sophia Loren. Shiv, did you hear what I said? That will improve the Bhushan stock and defile it.”

No one responded. The subdued light of the candles and hurricane lamps produced the mood of a vigil for Cyclone Carol, not one conducive to confrontation. 

That evening, and for the first time since I lived in that house, Uncle Ram did not say his usual “Hawa baand, samoondar soukarey.” The last words he uttered as he went to bed were:

1945              1945                 1945.

I don’t know if Auntee Ranee or Mama or Papa detected the same sentiment, or even paid attention, but I thought his voice was sorrowful. I went to bed feeling sad for him.

Outside, Cyclone Carol’s ire was turning to rage. I was afraid.

. . .

The next morning, February 28, 1960, at around 8:30, we heard a loud bang. It sounded like a huge sheet of metal hitting our house. This was followed by many more such bangs, of wood beams and shingles flying in the air and crashing on the road or against the neighbors’ houses. There was the eerie sound of trees being uprooted and crashing to the earth.

Suddenly Uncle Ram shouted, “Shiv, come here. I need your help.”

I followed Papa to Uncle’s living room. The front door was open and the cyclonic wind was pummeling with such force that Uncle and Papa couldn’t push the door shut. They couldn’t even reach the doorknob. Mama, Auntie, and I stood behind them, hoping that the human barrier thus created would prevent, or at least reduce, the wind whipping in. We looked at each other: we were sure Uncle Ram had forgotten to close the door when he went to bed. We remembered his drunkenness.

A loud creaking noise from above tore through my ears. I looked up. The wind blowing in through the open door was battering the gable roof from the inside. Planks were detaching from the beams.

Uncle Ram was exhausted. It was clear we were going to lose the front roof. As rain poured into the living room, Papa, Mama, and Auntie began to move an armoire to a room at the back, which had its own gable roof. On the mirrored doors of the armoire, I caught a shadowy glimpse of Lion Mountain. I turned my head: a window had flung open, revealing the mountain on the horizon. It looked like it never had before—desolate, dreary, no longer conjuring up the stately lion of sunny days.

“Run to the back,” Papa said.

I felt his hands grab my shoulder, then I spotted Uncle Ram’s stationmaster’s cap on the floor. It was his treasured possession, one he proudly displayed on the wall. I wriggled free, made a dash for it, and picked it up.

Another great bang sounded and the front roof was gone. Somehow it did not fall on the floor—Papa and I would have been crushed to death. It flew away from the house.

We huddled in the back. With the wind now banging inside the house, we saw and felt its fury—we were inside its fury, we were almost part of it. Papa yelled that Cyclone Alix, six weeks earlier, looked like a trial run. He and Uncle Ram decided we should lock the back and run to the neighbor across the road, the Prem family, who had just built a new house. Papa, being the strongest, would hold Auntie Ranee’s baby; Mama and Auntie Ranee would carry the jewelry and valuables; Uncle Ram would carry legal and bank documents; and I would run ahead of them so they could keep an eye on me.

We massed near the door, waiting. Papa felt a lull and told me to run, and the next thing I knew I had landed like lead under the custard apple tree. I tried to move, but I felt nailed to the ground. The velocity of the wind was such that the rain was moving horizontally. Like a mad magic carpet, a corrugated iron sheet from a neighbor’s roof swirled over my head, nearly decapitating me. I was terrified. Mama looked distraught. Papa shouted at me to wait. Uncle and Auntie were speechless. Then there was a true lull, and we all ran to the Prem family. The whole neighborhood, some thirty people spread across five rooms, had sought refuge there, nervously drinking tea and listening to the wind.

 

From Vinod BusjeetSilent Winds, Dry Seas. Copyright © 2021 by Vinod Busjeet. Used with permission of Doubleday.  

 

Read Vinod Busjeet’s essay about writing Silent Words, Dry Seas in the November/December 2021 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine.

5 Over 50: 2020

by

Staff

10.7.20

For the past five years we’ve dedicated this space to featuring five debut authors who have lived a good deal of life before publishing their first books. From the start our aim was to highlight not one path—not some mythical road, paved with youthful intentions, upon which so many “new and emerging” authors travel—but rather the countless individual routes, some considerably longer and circuitous than others, that lead to the publication of a debut book. After all, there isn’t one way to be a writer, and “new” and “emerging” are not synonymous with “young.” In this, our fifth annual 5 Over 50, we meet five authors—ranging in age, from early fifties to early seventies, and published by presses large and small, from Cleveland’s independent Belt Publishing to New York City’s Big Five imprints—who followed their passion, dedicated themselves to their craft, and pursued with dogged perseverance a dream undiminished by career building, child rearing, and the joys, sorrows, responsibilities, and challenges of lives well lived. As one of this year’s debut authors, A. H. Kim, whose dream to publish a book revealed itself relatively recently—only eight years ago—puts it: “To those of you who have a dream I say, ‘Go for it.’”

Valentine (Harper, March 2020) by Elizabeth Wetmore
The Last Children of Mill Creek (Belt Publishing, April 2020) by Vivian Gibson
A Good Family (Graydon House, July 2020) by A. H. Kim
We Were Lucky With the Rain (Four Way Books, September 2020) by Susan Buttenwieser
2nd Chance (New Issues Poetry & Prose, October 2020) by Daniel Becker

Elizabeth Wetmore, author of Valentine, published in March by Harper. (Credit: Carrie Allen)


Mary Rose

I used to believe a person could teach herself to be merciful if she tried hard enough to walk in somebody else’s shoes, if she was willing to do the hard work of imagining the heart and mind of a thief, say, or a murderer, or a man who drove a fourteen-year-old girl out into the oil patch and spent the night raping her. I tried to imagine how it might have been for Dale Strickland:

The sun was already crawling toward high sky when he woke up, dick sore and dying of thirst, his jaw locked in a familiar amphetamine clench. His mouth tasted like he had been sucking on the nozzle of a gas can, and there was a bruise the size of a fist on his left thigh, maybe from hours pressed against the gearshift. Hard to say, but he knew one thing for sure. He felt like shit. Like somebody had beaten both sides of his head with a boot. There was blood on his face and shirt and boot. He pressed his fingers against his eyes and the corners of his mouth. Turned his hands over and over looking for cuts, then pressed them against the sides of his head. Maybe he unzipped and examined himself. There was some blood, but he couldn’t find any obvious wounds. Maybe he unfolded himself from the front seat of his pickup truck and stood outside for a minute, letting the harmless winter sun warm his skin. Maybe he marveled at the day’s unseasonable warmth, its unusual stillness, just as I had earlier that morning when I stepped onto my front porch and turned my face to the sun and watched a half dozen turkey buzzards gather in large, slow circles. The work of mercy means seeing him rooting around in the bed of his truck for a jug of water and then standing out there in the oil field, turning 360 degrees, slow as he could manage it, while he tried to account for his last fourteen hours. Maybe he didn’t even remember the girl until he saw her sneakers tumbled against the truck’s tire, or her jacket lying in a heap next to the drilling platform, a rabbit skin that fell just below her waist, her name written on the inside label in blue pen. G. Ramírez. I want him to think, What have I done? I want him to remember. It might have taken him a little longer to understand that he had to find her, to make sure she was okay, or maybe to make sure they were clear about what had happened out there. Maybe he sat on the tailgate, drinking musty water from his canteen and wishing he could remember the details of her face. He scuffed a boot against the ground and tried to bring the previous night into focus, looking again at the girl’s shoes and jacket then lifting his gaze to the oil derricks, the ranch road and railroad tracks, the scarce Sunday traffic on the interstate and behind that, if you looked real hard, a farmhouse. My house. Maybe he thought the house looked too far to walk to. But you never know. These local girls were tough as nails, and one who was mad? Hell, she might be able to walk barefoot through hell’s fires, if she made up her mind to do it. He pushed himself off the tailgate and squinted into the jug. There was just enough water to clean up a little. He bent down in front of the driver’s mirror and ran his fingers through his hair, made a plan. He would take a piss, if he could manage it, and then drive over to that farmhouse and have a little look-see. Maybe he’d get lucky and the place would be abandoned, and he’d find his new girlfriend sitting out there on a rotting front porch, thirsty as a peach tree in August and happy as hell to see him again. Maybe, but mercy is hard in a place like this. I wished him dead before I ever saw his face.

 

From the book Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore. Copyright © 2020 by Elizabeth Wetmore. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.  

Vivian Gibson, author of The Last Children of Mill Creek, published in April by Belt Publishing. (Credit: Iris Schmidt)

 

We lived in 800 square feet: three rooms on the first floor of my grandmother’s house, filled mostly with beds. My grandmother, my father’s mother, lived in the rooms above us. There were few words wasted between my mother and her mother-in-law even though we all lived in the same house for years. They were skilled at avoiding each other. It was easy—Mama just had to be in her bedroom at 5:00 a.m. when Grandmama came downstairs to leave for work, and in the kitchen at 5:00 p.m when Grandmama trudged up the stairs after work. I never heard a harsh word or a raised voice between them, but I never saw a smile either. We children were the go-betweens and messengers. Grandmama was referred to by my mother as Miss Hodges—tell Miss Hodges this, take Miss Hodges that. Daddy was the fulcrum on which both women rested—central to their coexistence and function in our household. My grandmother did my father’s laundry weekly and made his lunch every day. I’m sure my mother gladly acquiesced; she had plenty of washing and cooking to do already.

My grandmother joined many of the women on Bernard Street who left home before daylight to catch as many as threestreetcars that transported them to manicured communities just west of the city limits. They arrived early to homes where they cooked and served scrambled eggs for breakfast and readied white children for school. The rest of their day was spent cooking, cleaning, and doing laundry until boarding streetcars in the evening that returned them home just in time to go to bed. Grandmama said that there were sundown laws that mandated people of color to be off the streets in the county by sunset. If she had to work late, her “white folks” (that’s how she referred to her employers) would drive her to the Wellston Loop to catch an eastbound streetcar back into the city.

My grandmother was in bed for the night by 7:30, which was our time to be quiet. A slammed front door, a burst of laughter, or the rhythmic thumps of Sam Cooke singing “Another Saturday night and I ain’t got nobody” on the radio would elicit familiar rapping on her bedroom floor. There was a broomstick leaning against the wall—an arm’s length from her bed—just for the purpose of pounding a signal for silence. Sometimes, out of frustration, she would shuffle in her well-worn slippers to the top of the stairs and call down to my mother, in a commanding tone made no less threatening by her shaky, weary voice: “Frances, make those children be quiet.” It usually worked for the rest of the evening.

Halfway up the stairs that led to Grandmama’s rooms was my favorite retreat from the constant hum made by the ten people inhabiting the three small rooms below. The worn wooden risers and treads of the steps created a perfect work desk for cutting out Betsy McCall paper dolls. The eagerly anticipated monthly issue of McCall’s magazine provided me with hours of cutting out brightly colored paper dresses, coats, and hats that I carefully crimped onto Betsy’s posed body. More hours were spent drawing new outfits of my own design. Using the smooth white cardboard that formed Daddy’s freshly laundered Sunday shirts into a starched folded rectangle, I cut and crafted small easels that held my paper dolls erect for miniature fashion shows.

That space that divided Grandmama’s quiet from our constant hum held another appeal for me—it was an opportunity to eavesdrop on my grandmother’s cloistered existence just feet away. There was always a low murmur from the brown molded-plastic Zenith radio that sat on the crowded table just inside her bedroom door. The black rotary telephone that took up most of the remaining space on the small table rarely rang in the evening. But when it did, I leaned in and pressed the side of my face against the upright wooden balusters and positioned an ear to hear what was said. Sometimes I could tell it was one of the sisters from the church, usually Mother Vine. Mother Vine was a feisty and friendly old lady who always smiled and stroked my face on Sunday mornings when we arrived at the church. She tilted my chin upward and looked me in my eyes in a way that my grandmother never did. She would always ask, “How’s yo’ mama?” as if to distract me while she magically presented a peppermint candy from her purse. I couldn’t see Grandmama’s face, but I could hear a slight smile in her voice after she said, “Hey, Vine.” Their phone conversations never lasted long and ended with a wry, knowing chuckle followed by, “You get some rest now, bye.”

Other times when the phone rang, I would hear a voice and words that I hardly recognized. Her side of the phone conversation started with the usual questioning “Hello?” Then changed to an unfamiliar subservient “Yes, ma’am.” After a pause her voice changed again to a soothing maternal tone that I only heard during these exchanges, “I know,” she’d say reassuringly. “You be a good boy now. Go to bed, and I’ll be there when you wake up in the morning.”

 

Excerpted from Vivian Gibson’s The Last Children of Mill Creek. Copyright © 2020 by Vivian Gibson. Appears with permission of Belt Publishing.  

A. H. Kim, author of A Good Family, published in July 2020 by Graydon House. (Credit: John Wooley)

 

Welcome to Alderson, West Virginia, reads the sign at the town’s border, Voted Best Fourth of July Celebration. Sam drives the car along the riverbank and across a stone bridge, past a patchy green field with a lonely brown mare and along a gently curving driveway marked by a government-issued sign that announces you’re entering a federal prison camp.

It’s almost 5:00 p.m., and the Alderson Prison parking lot is empty. We shouldn’t have stopped for lunch on the road. The letter from the Bureau of Prisons made it clear Beth had to self-surrender during business hours today or risk additional punishment. There’s a black cast-iron call box next to the single-arm gate, and Sam lifts the receiver.

“Do you remember the code to dial?” Sam asks. Beth gives a mild shrug. I reach into my purse—a well-worn leather satchel found among my mom’s things after she died—and begin to sort through a thick sheaf of papers when a white sedan approaches from the opposite direction, exiting the prison through another single-arm gate.

“Is she self-surrendering?” a Tipper Gore look-alike asks. She points to me sitting in the back seat. Sam and Beth don’t say anything.

“No, I’m not the one. She is.” I gesture toward Beth, feeling like a narc.

“Okay,” Tipper replies, “dial 313 and tell them the name of the inmate. Then pull over into the parking lot, and they’ll be out to get you.” With that, she drives away.

Sam does as he’s told. We wait in the parking lot for what feels like a lifetime before a white van drives up. The three of us get out of the car.

“You the one self-surrendering?” the guard asks, looking at me.

“No,” I say quickly. My voice is louder this time.

“I’m the one,” Beth says. “I’m the one self-surrendering.” The guard ogles Beth up and down.

“You’ll have to leave that behind,” the guard says. She points to Beth’s right hand. Beth is still wearing the ring Sam got her for their fifth anniversary—everyone in the family calls it her Bling Ring—comprised of five rows of pavé diamonds in a platinum setting. Beth never wears a ring on her left hand. “I like to keep people guessing,” she always says.

“My lawyer said I could wear my wedding band,” Beth protests.

I stifle a groan. If you had read the Alderson inmate orientation handbook that I emailed you, you would know about the Bureau of Prisons’s jewelry policy—“Inmates may have a plain wedding band and an appropriate religious medallion and chain without stones.”

The Bling Ring is anything but plain.

“Here, take this,” I say. I unclasp the thin chain around my neck, pull the simple gold ring off and hand it to Beth.

“Oh no, I couldn’t,” Beth says. “That belonged to your mother.”

“It’s okay, she’d have wanted you to have it,” I say. I’m lying. My mother died years before Sam met Beth, but she wouldn’t have liked her. Beth is too American, too materialistic and too domineering for my traditional Korean mother—not to mention too felonious.

“It doesn’t fit,” Beth says. She passes the simple band back to me. “Anyway, I’m afraid I might lose it.” I return the ring to the gold chain, and Beth passes me her Bling Ring, which I slip onto my finger. The weight of the diamonds feels surprisingly nice.

“Okay, that’s enough. You’re already late. Time to say good-bye,” the guard barks. We stand there awkwardly, not sure what to do next.

“I don’t know what to say, Hannah,” Beth murmurs. She takes a step forward and hugs me hard. I can feel Beth’s heart beating against my chest. “Thank you for coming all this way. I’m glad Sam won’t have to drive all the way home by himself. Be sure to take good care of the girls.”

Beth releases me and turns to Sam. She holds his hands and leans her head into his broad shoulder. Sam buries his face in her thick hair.

“I’m so sorry, Beth,” he whispers.

“Stop it,” Beth says.

“It should be me.”

“What’s done is done.”

Sam lifts his head, and Beth kisses him lightly on the lips.

“Just don’t screw up again,” Beth says. Then she pushes him away.

 

An excerpt from A Good Family © 2020 by A. H. Kim. Appears with permission of Graydon House. All rights reserved.  

Susan Buttenwieser, author of We Were Lucky With the Rain, published in September by Four Way Books. (Credit: Keith Summa) 

 

We Were Lucky With the Rain

Lacey can’t resist spying on her parents when they fight. Which happens whenever her mother has disappeared for a few hours or, occasionally, the entire evening. Lacey lies flat on the wooden floor of their upstairs hallway, peering through the banister at her parents, who are yelling at each other in the living room below. 

Her father wants to know where her mother has been and why she never picked up Lacey from her piano lesson this afternoon, or her younger sister, Eileen, after school. 

“I told you this morning that I was going to this Mom lunch thing at Hoolihan’s. So I was late, okay?” Lacey’s mother throws her purse onto the floor. Only her legs are visible underneath a red dress, as she roams around the living room. She bumps into the coffee table, left ankle buckling.  

“You weren’t late, you didn’t show up. You didn’t answer your phone. We had no idea where you were. And now you’re a complete mess.” Her father’s voice goes up an octave. “You could have killed someone, you know.”

Her mother starts laughing. “Jesus, relax. I took a cab.”

“Then where is the car, goddamn it?” 

If Lacey tilts her head a certain way, she can see her father’s slippers pacing back and forth. She strokes her fraying rope bracelet that she got at her school’s Fall Festival. Her fingers always work their way to its soft underside whenever she’s waiting for her turn to bat for her softball team or perform in a piano recital.

“The car is fine, all right?” her mother says. “I left it in the parking lot at that Star Market by Hoolihan’s.”

 “It’s not fine. It won’t be fine. You can’t leave the car there overnight. It’s going to get towed!” Her father’s slippers stop moving. Then he stomps his left foot on the floor and throws a sofa cushion out into the hallway. A table lamp crashes to the floor and her mother shouts at him to Stop it, just stop it.  

Lacey can’t understand how Eileen always sleeps through their parents’ arguments, which often involve things being broken. A few weeks ago, her mother hurled a bottle of red wine against the front door. Another time it was plates. She’s also thrown glasses, shoes, and once a dining room chair. But her father always cleans it all up, and in the morning, there is never a trace of the mess, not even one thing out of place anywhere.

Every Friday, Lacey’s mother picks her up after her piano lesson at 4:30. But this afternoon, 4:30 came and went, then it was 5:00. Lacey waited for her mother through the next lesson, and the one after that. Her mother never came. 

Lacey sat out in the hallway on a bench, her back pressed up against the wall. The lessons were in the living room and Lacey could hear the metronome and Mrs. Szabo counting, “one and two and one and two,” fumbling scales going up and down the piano. The hallway’s striped yellow wallpaper was covered with faded photographs. It smelled of old furniture and rugs, mold and dust, like Lacey’s basement. She pulled out her notebook to work on a sketch of the teacher she’d started during math class. He wore suits with purple basketball sneakers and was known for throwing chalk at anyone not listening. 

“Still no mother?” Mrs. Szabo said when all the lessons were finished for the day and then asked if Lacey wanted to call her. Her mother’s phone went straight to voice mail, so Lacey returned to the hallway bench while her teacher started dinner. The black baby grand was shoved in a corner of the living room. During the lessons, Mrs. Szabo always sat next to Lacey on a folding chair, making sure her hands didn’t slouch onto the keys, that she sat up straight, back like a board, shoulders down. Lacey hadn’t practiced very much during the week — one piece she didn’t work on at all — and Mrs. Szabo was annoyed with her. “You’re not trying. Put some porridge into your playing,” she’d said, wiping her nose on the ball of Kleenex that was always tucked inside her sweater. There was going to be a recital in three weeks and Lacey wasn’t close to being ready. Usually she received stars on all her pieces, but this week she got none.   

By the time Mr. Szabo got home, the hallway had become a mixture of smells, sautéing garlic, grilled chicken, and damp basement. Lacey could hear them discussing her in the kitchen, sometimes slipping into another language. “They’re survivors, honey,” Lacey’s mother would say in a hushed voice whenever Eileen wanted to know why they “talked so funny.” 

“Mister will give you a ride home,” Mrs. Szabo came out to the hallway. “You must practice an extra half hour each day this week.”  

As he drove, Mr. Szabo leaned way over the steering wheel and waited a long time at intersections to make sure nothing was coming. Cars honked at every traffic light, and Lacey hoped they wouldn’t see anyone from school. “Missus tells me you are a good piano player,” he said when they finally arrived at her house.

Lacey let herself in through the kitchen door and went through the dark house turning on all the lights downstairs. She sat in the window seat of their breakfast nook and pulled out her notebook and finished the sketch of her math teacher. The stove clock flipped over numbers and an occasional car drove by. 

After a while, her father’s Jeep Cherokee turned into the driveway, Neil Young blasting out of the open windows. When Lacey’s father came through the door, he was singing to himself, but stopped abruptly at the sight of Lacey alone and the absence of dinner.  

“Where’s Mom?” He pushed his glasses back onto the bridge of his nose. 

“Dunno.”

“Didn’t you have your piano lesson today?” 

Lacey nodded.  

“Did your mother pick you up?”  

Lacey shook her head. He stood in the middle of the kitchen, running his hands through his starting-to-gray curly hair, which could never seem to find a comfortable place on his head. “What about Eileen?” he asked. “She’s not home either?” 

“Nope.” Lacey was starving, but her father would be distracted trying to find Eileen and her mother. Dinner wasn’t going to happen as usual when Lacey’s mother disappeared. 

 

An excerpt from We Were Lucky With the Rainfrom We Were Lucky With the Rain © 2020 by Susan Buttenwieser. Appears with permission of Four Way Books. All rights reserved.  

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Daniel Becker, author of 2nd Chance, published in October by New Issues Poetry & Prose. (Credit: Kristen Finn)

 

Joint National Commissions Galore

I like the new cholesterol guidelines
better than the old guidelines: no room for confusion,
like the signs at the edge of a flat world.

But with or without guidelines, arteries harden and narrow,
and somewhere inside each of us
the blood will make a whoosh whoosh sound

while getting to where it is going.
In med school Professor Lub Dub Smith taught us how
to listen to the lub dub sounds

that heart valves make as they close in sequence.
He would stand at the podium and imitate the heart
adding clicks, murmurs, rumbles, gallops, and snaps

according to where the heart was troubled.
We loved him standing up there and sounding
like an exotic male bird showing off for the ladies.

I offer my stethoscope to the patient who whooshes,
but either he’s not ready for our ears to touch by proxy
or hearing his own clogged artery is too much information.

But a little too close for comfort is how we learn,
that’s how we know exactly where to listen.
If one day I look in one ear and out the other

I’ll never make that joke again.
I’d issue the standard warning
against going too far with Q Tips and leave it at that.

People don’t need to know everything, all the details
that don’t matter. Why the chloride is high
is like asking why normal is normal and then you need

to go statistic and draw the normal distribution in the air,
taking the audience out there on one tail or the other
of the bell-shaped curve, at which point they take my hand

from whatever horizon it’s pointing at and say it’s ok,
it’s going to be ok. Not normal isn’t so bad.
Each result on the chem 20 panel has a 5% chance

of being too high or low, and the chance of a normal person
being normal for everything is about 50%, lower than you’d guess.
When I give that lecture the students look out the window

to check if the grass is still growing.
Later in life, they will recount eternity in an hour
and apply that wisdom to their daily yoga practice,

not only apply it but rub it in to achieve a care free finish.
People don’t know care free
until an asteroid out of nowhere blots it and the horizon out

then crashes through the ceiling so there’s no place to sit
except on the edge of a speck of the big bang.
In that gloomy light what looks like a mixed metaphor

turns out is an elephant hogging the sofa.
Best not to talk too much about something like that,
best to reframe that experience, after all

it was only a small asteroid, maybe just a meteor,
a shooting star, someone’s wish wishing to come true.
The doctors say maybe we can help a little

and the patient decides a little chemo sounds better
than nothing. It’s easier to hear what we want to hear,
and not just because of ear wax or the vacuum

that used to be memory or good old reliable denial—
which may be dumb but is not stupid—
but because of Charles Darwin and natural selection.

Counting on happy endings helps us reproduce,
impose sanctions, plan for retirement, trust sun screen,
overcome modesty, fall in love and stay in love

like that lively couple French kissing on the beach
while I was getting a sun burn.
The French also invented the stethoscope. Whoosh

you want to hear him whisper in her ear.
Their private joke. Shush her private answer.
His cholesterol looks high, sugar and blood pressure too,

the kind of more than chunky more than middle age guy
who falls dead more often than chance would allow.
Is laughter his best medicine?

Not according to the Joint National Commission.
With electronic medical records, it’s easy to rank patients
with diabetes and learn the higher numbers are people

who like to thank the staff with home baked cookies.
It’s a sweet gesture. Sharing makes them happy.
We let them be happy, but we can’t make them,

not that there are guidelines. You can make
an old friend happy just by bumping into him
on the sidewalk. He’ll say how happy he is to see you.

Then say it again to make it stick. You smile back.
You stop slouching. You know that feeling when you finally
get around to changing the light bulb in the garage

and can go in there and actually see? That’s how light it feels:
two old friends watching the dawn until the indoor pool opens.
Cholesterol doesn’t come up,

but staying alive is implied by context. Why else be up early
swimming laps and asking existential questions?
Why does the water feel cold even though it isn’t?

Why keep the locker room so cold? Why do goggles
fit perfect one day and leak the next?
Same head, same beady little Kafka eyes that are overdue,

according to the postcard, for a check-up.
There’s a moment during that exam
when the reflection of the optic nerve

is visible to its owner, just a glimpse is all you get,
it seeing you seeing it, hardly counts as introspection
but what could be more meta?

Halls of mirrors for one thing. Guidelines for another.
Thousands of randomized patients and after a while
they look so much like you or me that escape is impossible.

While standing in line getting guidelined to death,
while explaining to the nurse your pressure is always high
at the doctor’s office, while saying aah then saying aah

an octave higher, while trying as instructed twice
to please don’t blink the eye drops out
staring as hard as you can to be a good patient—

think about how hard it is to outwit a reflex.
They never listen. Think about all those basic circuits
lined up end to end, how they can take us to the moon

and back if only we would let them.
Last night there was a full lunar eclipse,
the kind that looks like cream of tomato soup,

all the sunrises and sunsets on the planet
bent in the moon’s direction. But it was raining hard,
cats and dogs, too wet for shadows, and the rain

was an excuse to stay in bed and listen
to three points form a straight line
while heading in different directions.

The night purred as it settled into place.

 

From 2nd Chance by Daniel M. Becker (New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2020).  

5 Over 50: 2019

by

Staff

10.9.19

The stories of the debut authors featured in our fourth annual 5 Over 50 trace the unique, sometimes long, and often winding paths that lead to publication. “There’s rarely an easy path to success,” writes seventy-year-old debut memoirist Peter Kaldheim. “But as I can testify, without persistence there’s no path at all.” And while much attention is paid to how long it has taken (“What kind of nut keeps at it for twenty-seven years without success?” asks fifty-six-year-old debut novelist Julie Langsdorf), it’s important to consider that these first books would not be what they are without the experience—the joys, sorrows, struggles, and achievements—that their authors picked up along the way. These books are special for many reasons, not least of all because of the time—and patience—that went into writing and publishing them.

In our November/December 2019 print issue you can read essays by each of these five authors about their paths to publication and below you can read excerpts from each of their debut books.

White Elephant (Ecco, March 2019) by Julie Langsdorf
Ridiculous Light (Persea Books, April 2019) by Valencia Robin
Cornelius Sky (Kaylie Jones Books, August 2019) by Timothy Brandoff
Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss (Milkweed Editions, July 2019) by Margaret Renkl
Idiot Wind (Canongate, August 2019) by Peter Kaldheim

 

Julie Langsdorf, author of White Elephant, published in March by Ecco. (Credit: Robin B. Langsdorf)

AUGUST 31—MORNING 

Allison Miller lay in bed in the dim light of early morning thinking about sex. It was the hammering on the new house being built next door that was responsible, the rhythmic pound, pound, pounding that ought to have chipped away at any nascent amorous thoughts instead of inspiring them. She slid her hand across the sheet, touching her husband Ted’s thigh, but it was clear from the set of his mouth that sex was not in the offing this morning.

“Do you know what time it is, Al?”

The question was rhetorical. Their digital clock was of the large-numeral variety, designed for people like them, in their forties, eyes just beginning to go.

“We hardly need the alarm clock anymore, Cox is so loud,” Ted said. The revving of a chain saw made him leap out of bed as if stung. He opened the window—with effort. The Millers’ house was old and its parts had settled.

They’d lost the battle for the trees. Ted couldn’t accept it. Nick Cox, neighbor and builder, had been given the go-ahead to cut down more trees on the property next door. The town only had jurisdiction over trees that were twenty inches in diameter or more. There were a surprising number of these junior, cut-down-able-size trees on Cox’s property, a small forest that had sprung up over the years—trees not strong enough for climbing or genetically programmed to offer fruit or flowers, but still welcome for providing a little buffer of green between the Millers and the adjacent property.

Allison watched Ted with fond familiarity, the gentle curve of his rear end and the rush of red in his neck from the effort of opening the window. She waited for him to yell, to open his mouth and to really let loose. He’d threatened so many times.

She imagined Nick Cox in his jeans and hard hat, his blue eyes sparking as he yelled back. She pictured the two of them engaging in a twenty-first-century duel, fought across the yards, a battle of words over the fortress Nick was building to their left, a four-story monolith complete with battlements and a double front door that begged for attending knights in armor. It was even bigger than the faux stone castle he’d built to the right, with its many turrets and spires, where Nick, his wife, Kaye, and their two pretty blond children lived. One half-expected to see fireworks shooting into the sky above the house—if one could see the sky above from inside the Millers’, which one no longer could. Allison and Ted’s little house was wedged between the two, a pebble amid boulders.

In the meantime Tunlaw Place was in disarray, the air tinged with the stench of diesel. A construction truck and a dumpster were parked along the curb, along with Nick’s little yellow bulldozer, which looked like a brightly painted toy.

Allison closed her eyes and stretched her arms and legs toward all four corners of the bed imagining that she—not the neighborhood—was the one at stake, she the damsel in distress, she the one for whom Ted would slay Nick Cox. Or vice versa. The winner would bed her. She was ready to make the sacrifice.

Ted stood at the window, on the verge of shouting. Allison waited, excited at the prospect. Today, it was finally going to happen. Today, blood would be spilled. She took a deep breath, filling her lungs, waiting, waiting—but Ted seemed to think better of it. He slammed the window shut and stomped off to the shower.

The alarm beeped then, an unrelenting tone that increased in volume until Allison silenced it with the flat of her palm. She set off to face the last day of August. A day that was neither summer nor fall. A day neither here nor there. A day that promised to be nothing more than betwixt and between—just like she was, Allison thought. Just like her.

 

From the book White Elephant by Julie Langsdorf. Copyright © 2019 by Julie Langsdorf. Published on March 26, 2019 by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.

Valencia Robin, author of Ridiculous Light, published in April by Persea Books. (Credit: Jennifer Walkowiak)

 

Crash

What she hates is when there’s a form
that asks his name, how

without warning,
she’s no longer the sleepy driver

of her life, how that one word,
Father,

will muck up the autopilot,
a red light where there wasn’t

even a stop sign, a head-on collision
with, of all people, herself, how

even now, knowing his name, 
she leaves the space blank.

 

Semester Abroad

A room in a house just outside of Paris,
no idea I’d be sharing the bath with José, a little Brazilian
who could’ve passed for one of my cousins, that particular mix
of African, Cherokee and empire. I couldn’t understand a word he said,
French poured through a Portuguese accent, plus the landlady
didn’t like him, all I needed to justify my annoyance
of the bathroom situation. But weeks in and the landlady en vacance,
the power went out, so José lit candles, invited me to share
his pasta with crème fraiche. He’d never met his father
either, though his mother’s boyfriend bought him art supplies,
paid for drawing classes. I was surprised he was vegetarian, 
too, that French was his third language, that I was the provincial.
Nothing happened between us, not even after the bottle of Beaujolais, 
not even though I’d been looking for someone to save me
from being bored and lonely in Paris of all places,
only our shadows touching across the walls of that tiny kitchen,
city lights blinking through the foggy window and the realization
that I was no longer translating each word he said, that I understood
him, but even stranger, us—our faces, our very names
the spoils of conquest—our passports and the languages
we spoke and why, our fathers and fathers’ fathers, the back story
of millions whittled down to a few pages in high school,
the cowboy and Indian movies my mother refused to stop watching,
that I’d rent for her years later when she was dying,
flying across the Atlantic over the bones of God knows how many Africans
and forgetting to even look down, to remember them if only for a few seconds.
Yes, the unimaginable absence and lack and yet the unknown alive
in that kitchen, too, its contradictions, its silences
and hysterics, the blackness in our voices as we laughed
and talked through the night—a keening, but also a kind of space,
a clearing we could move through.

 

From Ridiculous Light by Valencia Robin. Copyright © 2019 by Valencia Robin. Used by permission of Persea Books, Inc. (New York)

Timothy Brandoff, author of Cornelius Sky, published in August by Akashic Books. (Credit: Reuben Radding)

He sat alone in the dark, save for the snow on the television screen. He got to his feet and considered this question: how does a nonalcoholic get ready for bed? He decided to brush his teeth. He reserved toothbrushing for the morning as a rule, but given the night’s events he thought he’d brush before bed as a demonstration of his nonalcoholic nature. People of an alcoholic nature go to bed without brushing, he figured, and given the fact that he was not an alcoholic, he probably should brush. And then he thought, What else does a person who’s not an alcoholic do? His mind drew a blank. Then he thought, I know what I can do, I can prepare my clothes for the morning. I can lay my clothes out so when I wake up I know what I’m going to wear. People of nonalcoholic natures do such things. If I’m not an alcoholic, he thought, and I’m not, I can lay my clothes out like a nonalcoholic in preparation for tomorrow’s nonalcoholic day. Granted, I like to drink. Vic Morrow probably enjoys a drink himself. He got up and looked at his clothes in the closet and thought, What a strange thing to do, and decided against it. I’m not going to put my clothes out for tomorrow just to prove I’m not an alcoholic. If I’m not an alcoholic, why do I have to prove it? I don’t have to prove my nonalcoholic nature to anybody. And who would I be proving it to anyway? And even if I am an alkie, whose business is that? 

They had tried to help his father, those men in suits. They came up to the house, spoke to his mother, the half-heard conversations lodged in Connie’s memory. A strange word when you’re seven years old: anonymous. Their clean-shaven faces, their pressed suits, a lucidity in the eye. Whispered words between his mother and those men, seeping through fabric hanging from doorway curtain rods, one doorless doorway after the next in those railroad flats, curtain after curtain through which muffled words floated.

Did they know Connie’s father killed himself? Of course they knew. They came to the house, tried to help, prior to the move uptown. They knew Sammy. And then, back in Chelsea, after the six-month nightmare that was Harlem, they paid Connie and his siblings special attention. They bought out Connie’s stack of newspapers nightly, tipped him heavily, gave him cold bottles of Coca-Cola from the red machine that tasted so good. Those men in suits, that AA clubhouse right there on 24th, they tried, didn’t they? 

Motherfuckers at that diner, and David playing dumb. Go ahead, David, keep playing dumb, see what happens. 

He decided on some light housecleaning like a nonalcoholic might. He picked up the ashtray, escorted it across the room, and was going to dump its contents out the window—but caught himself about to perform the act of an alcoholic. Your first night in the house and you want to dump your ashtray directly over the entranceway? 

He laid down and prayed aloud: “Lord God Father, please hear my prayer. Bless Maureen and Artie and Stevie, grant them peace and watch over them, Father.” He called his god Father because he liked it that way. He never did have too much of an earthly father. 

That man for a time up in Harlem, after Sammy and Edward passed, the man who taught Connie how to find the constellations in the sky. From that spot in St. Nicolas Park, surrounded by the night, away from the streetlamps (to let the stars shine more bright, the man said). The man’s breath on Connie’s neck, crouching behind him, the heaviness of an arm on Connie’s shoulder. The smell of talc on the man, a porkpie hat on his head. Did the man show Connie care and concern—was he really about astronomy? Holding Connie in a specific manner by the arms, directing his body to face a certain angle, to line up a constellation in the sky. The guy had his hands on me quite a bit: like that priest who taught me how to make free throws. They always position themselves behind you, these short eyes. They sure know how to pick out a fatherless kid, let me tell you. Eagle eyes for the fatherless ones. See a kid with no father coming a mile off, a short eyes can. The special talent of any moderately gifted pedophile. 

I cannot picture life without it. He tried to feel out in his mind for an image of himself as a person who did not drink, and nothing came. The construct of a character named Connie Sky who lived a sober life eluded him, terrified him down to the ground, made him shudder.

An alcoholic walks into a bar. 

He felt his consciousness abandoning itself, the gears of his thoughts slipping, failing to catch altogether, and his last internal ramble came as a refrain, a fervent appeal tinged by the martyrdom of his suffering. 

Let me go, Connie’s heart cried, let me go, let me go.

 

Excerpted from the novel Cornelius Sky, by Timothy Brandoff. Used with the permission of the author and Akashic Books (akashicbooks.com).

Margaret Renkl, author of Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss, published in July by Milkweed Editions. (Credit: Heidi Ross)

 

Barney Beagle Plays Baseball

BIRMINGHAM, 1968

It was already dark outside but not quite suppertime, late in the year we moved to Birmingham, and I don’t know why I was alone with my mother in the grocery store. If my brother and sister weren’t tagging along too, then my father must have been at home with them, but if Daddy was home, why did I come along with Mama to the Piggly Wiggly at the very worst time of day, when the store was swamped with husbands stopping on the way home from work to pick up the one missing item their wives needed for supper? I might never have been in the Piggly Wiggly at night before, but I knew that men did not understand the rules of the grocery store, did not understand which direction to push the cart to stay in the flow of traffic, did not recognize that standing perplexed in the middle of the aisle is bad grocery store citizenship, especially right at suppertime.

My mother was surely in a hurry. Maybe I was slowing her down as she tried to zip around the bewildered men standing despondent among the canned goods, and maybe she sent me off to pass the time in the corner of the store where books and toys were displayed. Or maybe I wandered off on my own, in those days of retail on a human scale and no thought at all that kidnappers could be lurking in the Piggly Wiggly.

The toys were a familiar, paltry offering—dusty cellophane packages of jacks and Silly Putty eggs and paddleballs and green army men—but the books were mostly new to me. The few children’s books at our house belonged to an old-fashioned era of read-aloud classics, fairy tales and nursery rhymes and Bible stories and my own favorite, Poems of Childhood. The Piggly Wiggly display featured what seemed to be a vast array of Little Golden Books and early readers. I reached for a green book with a picture in the foreground of a dog wearing a cap turned sideways between its floppy ears. We didn’t have a dog ourselves. I had not yet made friends in our new city, and I wanted a dog more than I wanted anything.

I scanned the rest of the book jacket, pausing at the picture of boys in baseball uniforms. I had heard of baseball, but I’d never seen a game, in person or on TV, and did not recognize the outfits the boys were wearing. Why were these boys wearing pajamas outside on the grass? I only glanced at the words at the top of the book jacket. I was learning in first grade the sounds that letters make, but I could not yet read, and words in a book meant nothing to me.

But then, as I stood in the bright light of the grocery store with darkness pooling outside, unable to reach me, the letters on the cover of that book suddenly untangled themselves into words: Barney. Beagle. Plays. Base. Ball. Barney Beagle Plays Baseball. Oh, I remember thinking. Oh, it’s about a dog who plays baseball, and opening the book to see what happened. And only then did I realize I was actually reading the words. I was reading! I went racing to find Mama, dodging despairing fathers peering at can labels, to show her how I could sound out all the words on every page and understand each one. And she was so happy about my happiness that she told me we could bring the book home, even though we had no money at all, and it had not even crossed my mind that she might buy it for me.

 

From Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss by Margaret Renkl (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2019). Copyright © 2019 by Margaret Renkl. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions. 

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Peter Kaldheim, author of Idiot Wind, published in August by Canongate. (Credit: Kyrre Skjelby Kristoffersen)

The sun was dropping fast when I returned to the highway, anxious to get moving again before dark. Tallahassee was less than halfway across the Panhandle, and I still had nearly two hundred miles to go before I reached Pensacola. The first ride I caught didn’t help much. The businessman who picked me up was only going down the road a few exits, to the western outskirts of Tallahassee. I took the ride anyway. I thought maybe I’d have more luck at the edge of town, away from the local traffic. Climbing into his Eldorado Caddy, I felt a blast of cold air hit me in the face and I realised the guy had his air conditioner cranked—a pleasant reminder that I was now in the Deep South and wouldn’t have to worry about freezing out on the road overnight. Or so I thought.

My next ride was longer, and anything but cool. In fact, if I had known how much I’d be sweating by the time it was over I never would have gotten in the car. The lights of Tallahassee were winking on for the night when a beat-up Ford Fairlane trailing sparks from a dragging tailpipe came scraping down the ramp and pulled over on the shoulder beside me. The back door swung open and a Southern voice called out, “Room for one more. Come on, if you’re coming!” What am I getting myself into? I wondered, but I was tired of waiting on the ramp, so I grabbed my stuff and jumped into the back seat beside a blond teenager with a scared-rabbit look in his eyes. 

“That there’s Kalvin,” said the driver, twisting around in his seat to introduce me to the scrawny teenager. “Picked him up a few miles back. I’m Virgil and this here peckerhead’s my brother, Sammy,” he said, nodding at the other middle-aged redneck in the front seat. “What’s your name, hoss?” When I told him, he said, “Well, Pete, we can take you far as the Alford turn-off. Then we’re headin’ north to Alabama. Sammy, pass that bottle. Let ol’ Pete get a nip for the road.” 

Brother Sammy swung around and shoved a pint of Wild Turkey at me, but I smiled and waved him off. “Shoot yourself,” he grinned. “More for me and Virgil.” Not that the two of them needed it, I thought to myself. The inside of the Fairlane smelled like the business end of a moonshine still. Kalvin’s jittery look was starting to make sense. And it wasn’t long before I was wearing that same look myself. 

Virgil stomped on the gas, and the Fairlane fishtailed off the shoulder in a clatter of gravel. We shot out onto the highway, with the crazy redneck steering one-handed and the tailpipe spraying sparks like a grinding wheel. “Make yourself useful, Sammy,” Virgil barked, once we were up to speed. “Find us some Reba on the radio. Ain’t a party without Reba. And don’t be hogging that Turkey, you peckerhead. Give it here,” he said, letting go of the wheel with his steering hand to snatch the bottle from his brother’s grasp. 

With growing alarm, I wondered what kind of show-off game the fool was playing, as Virgil took a long pull from the bottle and let the Fairlane drift rudderless across two lanes of traffic. Why the hell wasn’t he steering with his other hand? That’s when fear sharpened my focus and I belatedly noticed the pinned-up left sleeve of Virgil’s khaki fatigue jacket. I couldn’t believe it – we were crossing the Panhandle in the dark with a one-armed drunk at the wheel. Could this ride get any crazier?

I glanced to my left to see how Kalvin was taking it. The poor kid looked ready to jump out of the car on the fly. I nudged him with my elbow and whispered, “Hang tough, Kalvin. We’ll get through this.”

“In how many pieces, you think?” Kalvin whispered back. Gallows humour. I liked it. The kid had more pluck than I thought. Which was a good thing, because the eighty-mile ride to Alford was a hair-raising test of nerve for both of us. Amazingly, we made it through alive. Don’t ask me how. Only the angels can answer that one. All I know is, the kid and I were wrung out by the time we scrambled out of the Fairlane at the Alford exit and we both agreed to bed down for the night rather than push on in the dark. 

While we were scouting around for a campsite in a clover field beside the road, a cold drizzle began falling and the only shelter available was the overpass bridge, so we climbed the steep embankment and lay down head-to-head on the wide concrete ledge beneath the roadway support beams. I nodded out for an hour or so before waking to take a piss, and when I opened my eyes I saw Kalvin sitting up wide awake beside me, hugging himself and shivering with cold. The night air had gotten much cooler after the rain and the kid’s flannel lumberjack shirt wasn’t cutting it. 

“Why didn’t you wake me up and tell me you were freezing?” I scolded him. He said he’d been scared to bother me. “Don’t be a dummy,” I said, stripping off my overcoat. “Here, put this over you,” I told him, and when I got back we lay down beside each other beneath my coat. Eventually his teeth stopped chattering and he drifted off. But we’d only managed a couple hours’ sleep before the probing beam of a cop’s spotlight hit me full in the face and woke me up.

“YOU THERE, UNDER THE BRIDGE, COME DOWN WITH YOUR HANDS UP!” the bullhorn voice commanded. 

Kalvin woke up muttering and asked what was going on. “The cops want a word with us,” I whispered. “We better get down there.” 

Squinting into the bright light, we started down the steep slope, but neither of us could keep our footing on the embankment’s rain-slick paving stones and ended up sliding halfway down the slope on our asses. Which might have been comical if our pratfalls hadn’t landed us at the feet of an Army MP and a county sheriff who were out hunting an escaped military prisoner. 

“Either of these two your man?” the local cop asked the MP, but the army cop shook his head. “What are you guys doing under the bridge?” the sheriff asked. We told him we were holing up till daylight before thumbing west to Louisiana. He must have found our tandem tumbling act amusing, because instead of hassling us any further he and the MP just climbed back in their cruisers and drove off to resume their manhunt. 

“We got lucky,” Kalvin exhaled. 

“Tell that to my tailbone,” I moaned, brushing dirt off the seat of my pants. But both of us were laughing as we picked our way cautiously back up the slope and settled in to sleep off the last few hours before first light.

 

Idiot Wind © 2019 by Peter Kaldheim. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Canongate. All rights reserved.

5 Over 50: 2018

by

Staff

10.10.18

The debut authors featured in our third annual 5 Over 50 have all demonstrated the patience and resilience that is required of anyone who is devoted to writing as a lifelong art. What makes them special is not simply the quality of their first books, but also that they’ve already achieved so much, including obtaining the wisdom and perspective that comes from living a bit of one’s life.

In our November/December 2018 print issue you can read essays by each of these five authors about their paths to publication—as well as the inspirations, obstacles, and truths they discovered along the way—and below you can read excerpts from each of their debut books. 

All Happy Families (Harper Wave) by Jeanne McCulloch
Graffiti Palace (MCD Books) by A. G. Lombardo
Meet Me at the Museum (Flatiron Books) by Anne Youngson
Invisible Gifts (Manic D Press) by Maw Shein Win
For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors (University of Iowa Press) by Laura Esther Wolfson
 

Jeanne McCulloch, author of All Happy Families, published in August by Harper Wave.

 

Part I   

August 1983

A woman walks into the sea. It’s a mid-August day. Early morning. The sky is clear. A mid-August day on the beach near the end of Long Island and it’s the summer of 1983. Seagulls idle on the wet sand, and far out the fishing boats from Montauk patrol, small as dark toys against the horizon. It’s a perfect late-summer day. The woman on the shore is my mother. She wears the iconic headdress of her era, a floral bathing cap with brightly colored petals. She walks cautiously, hands out for balance, because even in a calm surf you can’t be too careful walking into the sea. She always taught us that. Respect for the sea. The latex petals of the cap flutter about her head, almost festive as she moves. It’s early morning and my mother walks into the sea. Behind her is our house, a long, gray, sea-weathered Clapboard house, stretching along a sand dune like a giant sleeping cat. My father bought this house years before the area became known as the Hamptons—back when it was still considered a long way from New York City, known mainly for artists and potato fields and the fisherman who made their living trawling off Montauk Point. The house had a shabby grandeur to it that time forgot. No air-conditioning (“The sea is our air conditioner!” my mother would proclaim) and no pool (“The sea is our pool”).

Every August when I was young, it was a giant slumber party in the house by the sea. My sisters and I would fall asleep against a tumble of cousins in quilts, listening to the steady refrain of waves gliding along the shore—the moonlight outside our bedroom spackling a silver route to the horizon.

August 13, 1983, was the day of my wedding. I was twenty-five, a messy splatter of freckles across my nose the final badge of childhood. Just before sunset that afternoon, I would put on a vintage lace dress that swooped gently off the shoulder in a style I saw as reminiscent of Sophia Loren in her glory days and my mother saw as suggestive of the sale rack at a yard sale. In the house that morning, they were talking in various rooms. In the pantry, the boy delivering flowers, sprays of lilies of the valley and a basket of rose petals for the wedding cake, was being bossed around by Johanna, the Irish cook. Johanna never got to boss anybody in the household; everyone, the housekeeper, the gardener, everyone disregarded her. She was a small woman in a hairnet, whose wisps of dry black hair nevertheless escaped and were often found floating in the vichyssoise. She stamped her foot, a white orthopedic shoe. “Get out of my kitchen,” she was telling the delivery boy from the florist’s shop, “I’m too busy,” she scolded him. “Go.”

In the sunroom, my half-brothers, three men in their early forties, sons from my father’s first marriage, huddled in conversation.  They all had beards and ready laughs; they—in addition to my half-sister—had come for the wedding with their spouses and their children from the far flung places where they lived lives of their own. Half siblings, and the term was apt; I half knew them, and I half didn’t. Scott raised llamas in New Mexico; in Florida Keith painted lush floral landscapes, some with naked women; in Colorado, Rod was engaged in investment strategies for a business no one understood. Mary Elizabeth, called MB, was an Arabic scholar in Paris. In my father’s sunroom, the morning light angled across the sisal rug, dust motes played in the air, and my three half-brothers were talking together, shoulders hunched, coffee mugs in hand.

The gardener, Vincent, in yellow protective earmuffs and a fishing cap, drove his seated mower in even rows up and down the sloping lawn, as he did every morning of summer, this day steering around the large white party tent erected earlier in the week for the reception. My wedding was scheduled to take place at five in the afternoon.  It had been timed and debated for months, the proper moment for a wedding. The ceremony was to be situated by the garden up by the house, with a view giving out to the sea. “Situated”—that was the term used by Ruth Ann Middleton, the professional wedding planner my mother had hired to marshal the wedding to perfection. A white wire gazebo has been placed there, and the florist would wreath the lattice in garlands of pink roses. Five in the afternoon was the time the light would be the rich gold particular to late summer. A bagpiper in a kilt had been hired by my mother, so at the ceremony’s conclusion, he’d guide the guests from the garden down to the tent—braying the union of husband and wife as the setting sun burnished rose through the trees.

“You know, men in kilts don’t wear any underwear,” my half-brother Keith had told us the day before the wedding, as we drove to visit our father. “Seriously, not a stitch. Just a pink ribbon tied around the big fella.” My siblings and I were in the family station wagon when he told us that, on our way to Southampton Hospital. Our father lay in a coma in the ICU, having had a massive stroke two days before the wedding, leaving our home for what we suspected might be the last time strapped to an ambulance stretcher—the strap a thin, final harness to our life. He had had the stroke following an abrupt withdrawal from alcohol after a lifetime of drinking, having gone cold turkey at my mother’s insistence so—in her words—he’d “sober up” for the wedding.

On the way to the hospital, Scott had insisted we stop at the fried-chicken place off Route 27, in case we got hungry, and as we stood watching our father breathe, the bucket of chicken sat unopened at the nurse’s station of the ICU, filling the air with its irrelevant fragrance.

We had bowed to my mother’s insistence that the wedding should go forward, despite our father’s condition. Because, she claimed, it’s what Daddy would want. “Besides,” she added, “all my friends are already en route.” And so a man with no underwear, in a plaid skirt, was going to bray on our front lawn at sunset as my father lay in a coma over in the next town.

The morning of my wedding, an easy breeze blew down the beach. My teenage nephews sat on their surfboards just beyond the break. All was calm and serene from the lilting vantage point of the sea. Occasionally a swell would captivate them and they angled their boards toward the shore, riding in on elegant curls of foam.

Later that afternoon, my mother would pin the family veil on my head. She’d mutter about how I should have let her get a proper hairdresser to tame my wild beach hair. Then she’d call the hospital and instruct them that no matter what happened that evening to her husband, they were not to call our house. Because, she’d go on to say, we were having a party.

The morning of August 13, 1983, the day settled into a steady rhythm near the tip of Long Island. Taking her swim before breakfast, which, she believed, was de rigueur in summertime, my mother walked into the sea.

 

From All Happy Families by Jeanne McCulloch. Copyright © 2018 by Jeanne McCulloch. Published by Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission by the publisher.

 

 

A. G. Lombardo, author of Graffiti Palace, published in March by MCD Books.

 

The sky is burning. A vast plain of scintillation. But it is only sun­ set, another rehearsal for some future promised holocaust. The dying light silhouettes towers of iron in rust’s glow: great stacks, ziggurats of steel cubes, shipping containers wedged and balanced on pier’s edge above the crimson diamonding of the Pacific.

Karmann Ghia turns away from the copper light drowning into the ocean, each lapping wave a sputtering flame that spar­kles, dies. The world is a funeral pyre without him—when will he return? She walks along this upper Matson observation deck, her fingertips caressing, tracing a rail of rebar Monk welded last year. White plastic chairs and a table shift in sunset shadows. Below, some of the old cargo containers still advertise faded logos glinting from networks of rust, salt, and desiccated barnacles: SEA-LAND, PACIFIC,  MATSON, WESTCON, YANG MING, RAM­JAC, EVERGREEN, PAN-IC (INTERNATIONAL CARRIERS). A city of iron cubicles latticed along the harbor, piled like a giant’s stairway in gravity-suspended steps rising toward the burnished sunset, or skewed in angles and intersecting layers; some pitched, half toppled by long-ago-extracted cranes and ship’s booms. The steel hulks loom like a metallic warren on the precipice of Slip Thirteen , an abandoned cargo depot jutting out into the smoggy dusk of Los Angeles Harbor. The shuttered facade of the Crescent Ware­ house Company along the East Channel obscures most of the old containers; beyond the protection of these warehouse buildings and the toxic, oiled patina of the channel waters is the city: only scattered buildings and glimpses of knotted freeways shift be­ neath the haze.

She descends the iron steps welded diagonally down the rusted side of the container, gripping the handrail of old, thin pipeline that Monk looped and welded around the crude  stair­ case. Dim corridors snake through the  labyrinth of the steel boxes, created by confluences of gaps amid the containers, or ship­ping doors ajar, or crawl spaces through torched holes or peeling iron sides. There are ropes, ladders, stacked crates, purloined boat ramps, illegally welded rebar rungs and handholds, ingress and egress, but these signs of human habitation have been care­ fully hidden from the city to the northwest.

Karmann disappears through an open cargo door, down a lad­der through a blowtorched portal, into the darkened nexus of the iron chambers. Electric bulbs strung on wires hanging from freight hooks and eyelets wash her black skin in dark rainbows of blue, yellow, green; she’s changed some of these lights with col­ored bulbs, hoping for a festive aura here, but lately it seems to her the effect is garish, carnival; maybe that’s just her soul of late.

In the main rooms now, a series of chambers extended by gap­ ing cargo doors, containers torn open and welded together at dis­ concerting angles. Windows torched through iron reveal views into other containers or sometimes the smoggy blue continuum of the channel waters and sky. An old sofa, tables, dusky lamps. Black-and-white shadows flicker from the Philco TV—Elizabeth Montgomery twitching her nose in Bewitched—hung with baling wire from a ceiling hook high in the corner, silent, volume down, its jangled antennas looped with wire snaking up corrugated iron walls for patchy reception. Some of Monk’s friends mill about, drinking Brew 102 or Pabst or some of Karmann’s Electric Purple lemonade from a glass bowl on the dining table, smoking cigarettes—although Slim-Bone over by the old fish-crate shelves splayed with crumbling paperbacks has just lit up a joint—the babble of conversations echoes, reverberating inside the steel walls, everyone’s voices metamorphosing into a kind of amplified clang that has seeped into her head, one of those migraines that will take a day and a bottle and a pack of cigarettes to muffle away. Atop a converted old crab trap is the hi-fi, the turntable playing a scratchy Miles Davis riffing on “Boplicity.” Cheap por­table fans waft smoke up through vent flaps sheared open in the ribbed walls or through welded windows and opened hatchways. More guests appear now, like pirates storming a besieged vessel, men and women swaying up or down from planks and ladders, twisting down knotted ropes, appearing at the bases of staircase crates, laughing, talking, bearing bottles of wine and plates of chicken and ribs and corncobs. Always a rent party somewhere in the ’hood, and tonight it’s Karmann and Monk’s turn, sharing food and drink, even stuffing a few Washingtons—if you can spare them—in a fishbowl on the table next to the pile of green­ for-money rent-party invitation cards, just enough to get a soul through another month, though Monk doesn’t pay any rent, since no landlord knows about Box Town, but the money bought food and gas and wine and cigarettes and records and bail, maybe a few bills stashed in the reserve for any needy soul’s emergencies. “Hey, Slim-Bone,” a new arrival, a young man in a purple silk shirt, calls out as he tosses another green rent card on the table’s pile:

Dont move to the outskirts of town
Drop around to meet a Hep Brown
A social party by Monk and Karmann
Saturday. Latest on Wax. Refreshments.

The rent party ebbs and flows through several levels of iron lozenges: couples caress on backseat divans torn from gutted cars, dance to Motown blaring from radios, rise toward observa­tion containers to toast the sunset or descend into sublevels where old mattresses and piled pillows and hammocks tucked away in shadowy metal corners wait like silent confidants for the new scents, pressings, and stains their lovers will bring. The electric bulbs blink and sputter with voltage stolen from surrounding harbor grids, feeding into shipyard transformers and underground vaults and through portals and under gangplanks of dry-docked, decommissioned navy ships: a discotheque effect, strobes of rain­ bow lights flashing, illuminates faces beaded with sweat, clear plastic cups sloshing dark wine, glistening black Afros, silvery strata of cigarette smoke, purple eyeliner, silver and gold chains webbed in moist chest hair glinting from open silk shirts.

 

Excerpted from Graffiti Palace: A Novel by A.G. Lombardo, published in March 2018 by MCD, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by A.G. Lombardo. All rights reserved.

Anne Youngson, author of Meet Me at the Museum, published in August by Flatiron Books.

 
 

Dear young girls,

Home again from the deserts and oases of the Sheikdoms I find your enthusiastic letters on my desk. They have aroused in me the wish to tell you and many others­ who take an interest in our ancestors about ­these strange discoveries in Danish bogs. So I have written a “long letter” in the following pages for you, for my daughter Elsebeth, who is your age, and for all who wish to learn more about ancient times than they can gather from the learned treatises that exist on the subject. But I have all too little time, and it has taken me a long while to finish my letter. However, here it is. You have all grown older since and so perhaps are now all the better able to understand what I have written about these bog people of 2,000 years ago.

Yours sincerely,
P. V. Glob (Professor)
August 13th, 1964

 

An extract from the foreword to The Bog People, by P. V. Glob (Faber and Faber, 1969): Professor Glob responds to a group of schoolgirls who have written to him about recent archaeological discoveries. The Bog People is dedicated to these schoolgirls.

Bury St. Edmunds
November 22

 

Dear Professor Glob,

Although we have never met, you dedicated a book to me once; to me, thirteen of my schoolmates, and your daughter. This was more than fifty years ago, when I was young. And now I am not. This business, of being no longer young, is occupying much of my mind these days, and I am writing to you to see if you can help me make sense of some of the thoughts that occur to me. Or maybe I am hoping that just writing will make sense of them, because I have little expectation that you will reply. For all I know, you may be dead.

One of these thoughts is about plans never fulfilled. You know what I mean—if you are still alive you must be a very old man by now and it must have occurred to you that what you thought would happen, when you were young, never did. For example, you might have promised yourself you would try a sport or a hobby or an art or a craft. And now you find you have lost the physical dexterity or stamina to take it up. There will be reasons why you never did, but none of them is good enough. None of them is the clincher. You cannot say: I planned to take up oil painting but I couldn’t ­because I turned out to be allergic to a chemical in the paint. It is just that life goes on from day to day and that one moment never arrives. In my case, I promised myself I would travel to Denmark and visit the Tollund Man. And I have not. I know, from the book you dedicated to me, that only his head is preserved, not his beautiful hands and feet. But his face is enough. His face, as it appears on the cover of your book, is pinned up on my wall; I see it every day. Every day I am reminded of his serenity, his dignity, his look of wisdom and resignation. It is like the face of my grandmother, who was dear to me. I still live in East Anglia, and how far is it to the Silkeborg Museum? Six hundred miles as the crow flies? As far as Edinburgh and back. I have been to Edinburgh and back.

All this is not the point, though it is puzzling. What is wrong with me that I have not made the so small effort needed when the face of the Tollund Man is so central to my thoughts?

It is cold in East Anglia, windy cold, and I have knitted myself a balaclava to keep my neck and ears and head warm when I walk the dog. As I pass the mirror in the hall on the way out of the door, I notice myself in profile and I think how like my grandmother I have become. And, being like my grandmother, my face has become the face of the Tollund Man. The same hollowness of cheek, the same beakiness of nose. As if I have been preserved for two thousand years and am still continuing to be. Is it possible, do you think, that I belong, through whatever twisted threads, to the family of the Tollund Man? I’m not trying to make myself special in any way, you understand. There must be other people of the family, thousands of them. I see other people of my age, on buses, or walking their dogs, or waiting for their grandchildren to choose an ice cream from the van, who have the same contours to their faces, the same blend of peacefulness, humanity, and pain. There are far more who have none of these things, though. Whose faces are careless or undefined or pinched or foolish.

The truth is, I do want to be special. I want there to be significance in the connection made between you and me in 1964 and links back to the man buried in the bog two thousand years ago. I am not very coherent. Please do not bother to reply if you think I do not justify your time.

Yours Sincerely,
T. Hopgood (Mrs.)

 

Silkeborg Museum
Denmark
December 10

 

Dear Mrs. Hopgood,

I refer to your letter addressed to Professor Glob. Professor Glob died in 1985. If he had still been alive, he would by now be over 100 years old, which is not impossible, but is unlikely.

I believe you are asking two questions in your letter:

i. Is there any reason why you should not visit the museum?
ii. Is there any possibility you are distantly related to the Tollund Man?

In answer to the first, I would encourage you to make the effort, which need not be very great, to visit us here. There are regular flights from Stansted, or, if you prefer, from Heathrow or Gatwick, to Aarhus airport, which is the most convenient for arriving in Silkeborg. The museum is open every day between 10 and 5. Here you can see the Elling Woman as well as the Tollund Man, and an exhibition that looks at all aspects of those who lived in the Iron Age; for instance, what they believed in, how they lived, how they mined and worked the mineral that gives the period its name. I must also correct something you said in your letter. Although only the head of the Tollund Man is preserved, the rest of the body has been recreated, so the figure you will see, if you visit us here, will look just as it did when it was recovered from the bog, including the hands and the feet.

In answer to your second question, the Center for GeoGenetics at our Naturhistorisk Museum is at the moment trying to extract some DNA from the Tollund Man’s tissues, which would help us to understand his genetic links to the present-day population of Denmark. You will have read, in Professor Glob’s book, that the index finger of the Tollund Man’s right hand shows an ulnar loop pattern that is common to 68 percent of the Danish people, which gives us confidence that this study will find such links. Through the Vikings, who came later to Denmark but will have interbred with the existing population, there is most likely some commonality of genes to the population of the UK. So, I would say, it is quite possible that there is a family connection, however slight, between yourself and the Tollund Man.

I hope this information is helpful to you, and look forward to meeting you if you visit us here.

Regards,
The Curator

 

Bury St. Edmunds
January 6

Dear Mr. Curator,

It was generous of you to reply to my letter to Professor Glob, and to try to answer what you understood my questions to be. But they were not questions. The reason I have not visited has nothing to do with the problems of travel. I have passed my sixtieth birthday but am nonetheless quite fit. I could go tomorrow. There have been few times in my life when that has not been so. Leaving aside child birth and a broken leg, I have always been physically able to climb onto a plane, or indeed a ferry, to Denmark.

This being the case, I am forced to consider what might be the real reasons, because your answer to an unasked question has made me want to be honest with myself. Please be aware, I am writing to you to make sense of myself. You do not need to concern yourself with any of this. I do not expect you to reply.

My best friend at school was called Bella. This was not her given name and is not the name in Professor Glob’s dedication: it is a nickname, based on her ability to pronounce Italian words. She was rubbish at languages, as far as learning to use them to communicate was concerned, but she could act them beautifully. Her favorite word was bellissima. She was able to put a level of meaning into each syllable that varied according to the context, so the word seemed to mean more, when she said it, than it actually does. In fact, everything she said had more meaning, more intensity, than the same words used by anyone else.

We were friends from the first day we met, which was our first day at school. She was more colorful than I was; adventurous, alive in the moment. She brought me energy and confidence, and I loved her for it. What she loved about me, I think, was the steadiness. I was always there, always had a hand ready to hold hers. We were friends all our lives. All her life, for I am still alive, as you know, and she is not. And all our lives we talked about the time when we would visit the Tollund Man. We were, you see, always going to do it, but not yet. To begin with, we did not want to use up this treat before we had savored the looking forward to it. We were maybe, also, a little afraid that it would not be what we had hoped. We hoped it would be significant in some way—we could not have told you in what way—and there was a risk it would not be. Our school friends went, helter­skelter. As soon as The Bog People was published in translation, if not before. They came back with an even stronger sense of ownership of the Tollund Man and Professor Glob and all things Danish than they already had. Bella and I thought they were superficial and unworthy and that the experience they had had was trivial, in comparison to the experience we would have. One day.

 

From Meet Me At the Museum by Anne Youngson. Copyright © 2018 by Anne Youngson. Reprinted by permission of Flatiron Books.​

Maw Shein Win, author of Invisible Gifts, published in April by Manic D Press.

 

Are You in the Room With Me Now?

My therapist asked why I never cry.
I ask myself the same, closing my eyes.
A small sty in my vision.

As hard as I tried not to cry,
I was shy as a child. As I crossed the street
with mother, I hid behind her lab coat.

My throat taut and
tight. I thought I might cry.
The other night I lost my sight.

I could hear a couple on the crosswalk.
A man doing a handstand.
Two kids making plans.

Perhaps a chance to dance
in another place. I could cross the state
line. Cry at the sight of a shimmering lake.

My therapist asked:
What are you thinking?
How does that make you feel?
Where did that come from
and are you in the room with me now?

In Rio, there is a majestic cross on a
cliff. People live in pink paper shacks below.
I danced and I drank there.
I thought I might die there.
I crossed myself although I didn’t believe.

You sweat silver tears.
You see through pink paper walls.
You think your body might be crying now.

 

Dust and Smoke

He doesn’t know I’m in the den. I am 12. I face his back. He sits in the  chair. He smokes Kent 100’s. He drinks. His rack of top twenty singles  on the wall. He has headphones on. I smell the smoke. It hurts my eyes.  I am barefoot. This is his room. The brown vinyl loveseat. The records  on the shelf: Joni, Bob, Carly. My hair is short. I have bangs. The blinds  are closed. The light coming through. Trail of smoke is a fairy wing.

Her father alone. In a studio. A door to a hut. Some white dust from the  street. The white dust comes through the openings in the walls. He waits  for the phone to ring. Dust on the photo of her sisters, her brother. Dust  on his white hair. His belly protrudes but his arms are sticks. Hershey’s  chocolate bars from Sav-On in his fridge. Chicken curry with potatoes  in plastic container. Dust on the table. Phone without sound. The street  with the voices. Heads that don’t look up. 

 

Flower Instructions

i.
Blanket streets with plum blossoms.
Rest body against warm concrete.
Find rose petals on sidewalk.
Glimmer of the memory garden.

ii.
Follow the trail of invisible bees.
Nectar guides for the lost ones.
Fling lasso into summer darkness.
Hear whistles and megaphone.

iii.
Hold body close to body.
Breathe in the greenhouse.
Wear wet glitter and silver hose.
Lick salt on skin.

iv.
Catch whispers in libraries.
Greet strangers with acorns and grapefruit.
Remember eyes, ghosts, smoke.
Watch brothers as they disappear.

v.
Imagine a new world.
Keep sisters close.

 

The Misfortunes of Guan Yin

i.
an oyster, still, in brackish waters
sound of fallen blankets, di sotto in su
three-chambered heart pumps transparent blood 

the misfortunes of Guan Yin
her eleven heads and thousand arms
eat up the master

the daughter captive in the enclosed porch
father hides in the bushes
a scar on the girl’s arm from a willing branch

ii.
calcified valves shelter fleshy
matter bony tongues and coffinfish encircle
the sea stars and spat

strangers and pilgrims offer snapdragons
and chocolate coins wrapped in gold paper
the mangrove roots have lost control

the sound of watermen scraping the
sound of beating cilia holding   
containing     opening     closing

iii.
nacre covers grit: mother-of-pearl
the evolution of an irritant
Russian blue, milk white

iv.
emerald green sash across her reedy
frame mottled skin across neck, shoulders
a girl dancing in the garden of her mind

 

You Will Be With Me in a Town Called Paradise

The sound of horns and bells, the sound of
round crowns and brown birds, blue bells.

You will be with me in a town called Paradise with a slice
of cake, cluster of cherries, champagne on ice. 

The night we met, a New Year’s Eve party, a talent show.
Someone pretends to be a stork, another pop of a cork.

Your clear eyes and warm head. I couldn’t hear your eyes, 
but I could see your voice. Is paradise this bed? 

Two cotton blankets and a comforter on my side, 
a light sheet on yours. Bluebells on the dresser.

You touch the cat’s fur, orange beneath the chin, 
she leaps off your chest. We rest for a while.

 

From Invisible Gifts by Maw Shein Win, published by Manic D Press. Copyright © 2018 by Maw Shein Win. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

page_5: 

Laura Esther Wolfson, author of For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors, published in June by University of Iowa Press.

 

Fait Accompli

I wore my flannel nightgown with the tiny lavender flowers. Aleksandr had on his beige briefs with the blue pinstripe, he said. I filled in the rest—ruddy hair, hazel eyes, slim form. He murmured to me over thousands of kilometers of telephone wire from his home, far to the south, in Tbilisi. His voice was warm.

In 1988, no one called it phone sex. We had discovered it on our own. We were making the best of our separation.

I was sprawled on a bed in the October Revolution Hotel, gripping the receiver. Outside, a massive ship the color of lead stood at anchor in the Neva River. An enormous lamp on deck sent a beam through my window, providing practically the only illumination in all of late-night Leningrad.

“And one day, when we make love,” he was saying, “it will be different from the other times, because we will make a baby.” His voice turned gravelly with desire. “We’ll create life. And you will become—a mother.” A detailed how-to followed.

I was in the USSR working on a cultural exchange project  and polishing my college Russian. I was twenty-two. Aleksandr was twenty-five, a rising star at a research institute specializing in honeybees. He inseminated the queens, artificially, using his own patented device. The bees adored him; he rarely got stung.

He had never been west of Montenegro. Inviting him to meet the folks was an undertaking. After I returned home to upstate New York, we waited eight months for the Soviet government to grant him an exit visa so he could come out for a visit. In those days, before email, cell phones, and Skype, I spent hours upon hours pressing redial, waiting for one of the four international phone lines serving his hometown to open up so that we could bellow to each other, at two dollars a minute, through a staticky roar that sounded like a volcano erupting over and over.

Years would pass before we became husband and wife. During those years of waiting, he talked frequently about the babies we would make. Before conceiving, he said, we must develop healthy habits, ingest the right minerals, avoid the wrong ones, exercise. His health-consciousness was impressive, considering where he came from: a part of the world where liquor flows so freely that it takes real effort to become known as a serious drinker, a place where the mention of lung cancer evokes a shrug and a smoke ring. After all, what is a demise at home, at your own pace, a death you choose yourself, compared to the midnight knock at the door, disappearance, interrogation, the gulag with its attendant frostbite, starvation, execution, all still part of recent memory? With that as the alternative, dying at home is a pleasure, a luxury, an assertion of free will.

Aleksandr was a nonsmoker; that alone made him remarkable in his world. He drank in moderation. By putting fishing line to novel use, he had independently discovered dental floss, a commodity unheard of in the Soviet Union.

And so, before we could become parents, we must be “ready.” Whatever that meant. But that was fine. My twenties and thirties stretched ahead. So far ahead that I could not see where they might lead. I listened to Aleksandr’s voice and I followed.

Three years after that telephone conversation, three years marked by extended visits and protracted separations, we were married near his parents’ home in Georgia. The next morning, the bedroom door flew open. We threw on some clothes.

In bustled Aleksandr’s chubby maiden aunt, Tamara, who lived in the apartment downstairs, pulling a little girl by the hand. The child was her namesake, and she went by the nickname Tamrico. She was one of the cousins, a ringleted five-year-old who often wore an enormous pink bow. We called her Tamrico the Terrible. During the wedding photos the day before, she had smashed her tiny fist through the lens of the only camera the family owned.

Behind the two Tamaras, other family members hovered. “There’s something little Tamrico wants to know,” said Tamara the Elder, laughing. We rubbed our eyes and blinked.

“Come on,” she said to the little girl. “What did you just say downstairs? Remember? Say it again.”

Tamrico took a breath. She recited: “Now that you’re married, when will you have a baby?”

A few years later, when Aleksandr and I were living in Philadelphia, his mother Nadezhda flew over for a visit. She set her suitcase down by the door, let her shearling coat slip off her shoulders onto the nearest chair, and set out on a circuit of the apartment.

“I’ve found the perfect place for the crib,” she said when she was done. The look on her exotic, youthful features was dreamy, yet practical.

Crib? “Where?”

“By your side of the bed,” she said to me. “So when the baby cries at night, you’ll be right there. And it’s far from the window, away from drafts.”

Similar comments followed in a steady stream. After a few days, Aleksandr and I shut ourselves in the bedroom to confer.

“We’ll say it’s my fault we don’t have a child yet,” he declared suddenly. “You want a baby, but I’m not ready.”

He had been born precisely ten months after his parents’ wedding day, so we were way overdue. I appreciated his willingness to take the heat.

I cannot pinpoint the moment when this story became the truth.

 

From For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors by Laura Esther Wolfson. Copyright © 2018 by Laura Esther Wolfson. Reprinted by permission of the University of Iowa Press.

5 Over 50: 2017

by

Staff

10.11.17

All of the published authors who appear in the pages of this magazine have roads behind them—paths to publication that are as unique to each writer as their own poems, stories, and essays. Some of these roads cut a straight path, while others turn this way and that; some double back and crisscross, while others are under construction, redirected by detours and bypasses. Sometimes there are shortcuts, but other times there are long scenic tours through many of life’s most notable markers: births, deaths, loves, families, travels, careers. Periods of joy and contentment followed by episodes of darkness, difficulty. Achievements and failures—all of it informing, inspiring, delaying, or precipitating the writer’s work in some way, directly or indirectly.  

The authors featured in our second annual 5 Over 50 have followed different paths as well, but their routes to publication are perhaps a bit longer—and, one could argue, more nuanced, often more complex, and even more, dare we say it, interesting—than those of “younger” writers who have the spotlight in today’s youth-focused culture. If our 5 Over 50 authors have one thing in common, it’s a sense of patient determination to create something meaningful, beautiful. And it really doesn’t matter how long that takes. As Peg Alford Pursell says, “There exists only one moment—the last—at which it’s too late for anything.”

Here, in their own words, we present five authors over the age of fifty whose debut books were published this year.

A Small Revolution (Little A, May) by Jimin Han
States of Motion (Wayne State University Press, May) by Laura Hulthen Thomas
Getting It Right (Akashic Books, June) by Karen E. Osborne
Ground, Wind, This Body (University of New Mexico Press, March) by Tina Carlson
Show Her a Flower, a Bird, a Shadow (ELJ Editions, March) by Peg Alford Pursell

 

Jimin Han

Age: Fifty-one.
Residence: South Salem, New York.
Book: A Small Revolution (Little A, May), a novel that unravels the intertwined narratives of a hostage crisis on the campus of a college in central Pennsylvania, two young people finding love, and a student uprising in South Korea.
Editor: Vivian Lee.
Agent: Cynthia Manson of Cynthia Manson Literary Agency.

Recently I was invited to speak on a panel about literary friendships at the annual alumni festival at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. The panel was scheduled for a smaller auditorium than where the other events were being held, and one of the other panelists, my longtime friend Patricia Dunn, author of the novel Rebels by Accident (Sourcebooks Fire, 2015), joked that no one would show up. She was wrong: It was standing room only. I spoke about how important it is to find spaces to protect and nurture my writer self and that the most significant space for me is my writers group. 

Alexandra Soiseth, author of a memoir, Choosing You: Deciding to Have a Baby on My Own (Seal Press, 2008), was the other member of our panel. Patricia, Alexandra, and I have been in a writing group with four other writers for nearly twenty years, ever since we left our MFA program. That small fact made the audience collectively gasp. A number of people asked how our friendship had helped us write and publish. 

The answer wasn’t just about how we critiqued one another’s work, although we all had something to contribute in that department; we’ve all taught at some point and shared revision techniques and writing prompts in our weekly meetings. The answer also had to do with how we support one another, how we celebrate birthdays, pregnancies, marriages, divorces, new loves, anniversaries, graduations, new pets, and how we’ve leaned on one another through infertility, cancer, miscarriages, abortions, IVF, depression, menopause, restraining orders, deaths of parents, deaths of pets, job changes, surgeries, periods of drought and indecision in our writing, and periods of doubt when we thought we’d given up for good.  

Four years earlier, at one of our Friday-night writers group meetings, at essayist Kate Brandt’s house (we meet at one another’s homes or at local cafés), it was my turn to announce I was quitting writing. The manuscript I’d been working on seemed to be at a dead end. Maybe it seemed so because my mother had recently suffered a stroke and I was preoccupied with what she needed. Playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer, author of Informed Consent, End Days, and other plays, said that she’d write alongside me for as long as it took for me to feel connected to my book again. She meant it; she met me every day until the way seemed possible. 

My writers group helped me realize I had to address the inner despair that got in my way—personal work that required a therapist. It took three false starts before I found the right one. We talk a lot about the future in our sessions. This is a simple truth: The future is unknowable. I never knew whether I’d have a book published, but I knew the act of writing sustained me. During one session, after I told my therapist that I hadn’t written that day, she replied, “Why not? If it helps you, why not? Who knows where it will lead?” 

I was inspired by her question. I found myself feeling entitled to say what I wanted to say again in my writing. The therapist worked with me to unpack the origins of self-doubt that plagued me. It wasn’t easy, it still isn’t, but I was able to push through and complete the novel. Waiting at the end of that process was my agent, who was enthusiastic about my manuscript. She was able to sell it to an editor who loved it and understood what I was trying to accomplish. This last part—publication—is so much about luck. I’ve read many compelling manuscripts written by brilliant writers that have not been published. But that isn’t a reason to give up.

The only part we can control is writing and accepting that we don’t know where it will lead—which is all the more reason to keep trying. 

 

(Photo credit: Janice Chung)

Laura Hulthen Thomas

Age: Fifty-one.
Residence: Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Book: States of Motion (Wayne State University Press, May), a collection of vividly rendered stories set in small-town Michigan that follow characters broken by economic hardships, betrayal, and conflict in the mess of real life.
Editor: Annie Martin. 
Agent: None.

The day my dream editor, Annie Martin at Wayne State University Press, called to reject the manuscript of States of Motion was the day I decided to give up on fiction. The no should have been business as usual. A writer like me works for many years before hearing yes to even a single story. My long stories shatter nearly every literary magazine’s word-count ceiling, so acceptances are rare. That this editor had read my collection at all felt like a one-hit wonder. I’d contributed to her press’s anthology, so she was a sympathetic, generous reader. Her rejection felt like the end of the line. Besides, real life was throwing one of its tantrums. My husband had lost his job in the recession. Our closest friends, too, were losing their jobs and homes. Writing fiction seemed…well, unaffordable. The editor extended a kind invitation to resubmit the manuscript when the stories did more than coexist. I wondered whether my life as a writer could continue to coexist with my life outside of fiction.

Several months after I stopped writing, I called my great-aunt Joan, who was dying of cancer. She’d always led a quiet life in her small New Hampshire town, but on the phone she recalled a grand adventure. In the spring of 1939, when she was five years old, Joan traveled with her mother on one of the Queen Mary’s last voyages before the ocean liner was retrofitted as a World War II troopship. A terrible storm outside New York almost swept Joan overboard. “The waves were sloshing the decks something wicked,” she said. “Then suddenly Mother lifted me up and held me out to the storm.”

“Wait,” I said. “By ‘held out’ do you mean she dangled you over the railing?”

“Oh, yes. The clouds were black and folding over each other like snakes. The ocean was crashing into the hull. The waves seemed to come right up to my ankles.”

As a protective mother, I was aghast. Who was this reckless great-grandmother I’d never met? A woman who decided to take her continental tour alone, with her five-year-old daughter in tow—when the continent in question was approaching war?

This was a woman who didn’t merely coexist with her life and times.

I saw then that abandoning my work was just a safety railing. I set aside the collection to write new fiction about Southeast Michigan’s troubles. I invited my dearest writing buddies to an inspiring DIY retreat at a cabin on Lake Huron. Years later, when my stories were no longer coexisting, but conversing, I resubmitted States of Motion to the dream editor. 

The book came out just before I turned fifty-one, well after the hope for dreams you might achieve matures into the acceptance that you just might not. I have found, however, that not publishing earlier in life has been a gift. By hearing yes only rarely from editors and readers, I discovered how to say yes to my work, today, right now. I no longer seek the writer I should be, but the writer I am.

Several days after my great-aunt told me of her greatest adventure, Joan passed peacefully. Before we hung up for the last time, I had asked why she thought her mother had thrust her over that railing. “Laura, she just wanted me to be able to see,” Joan said. How courageous of my great-grandmother to show her daughter the terrifying beauty of risk, even when no one else is on deck to share the view. 

 

(Photo credit: Ron Thomas)

Karen E. Osborne

Age: Sixty-nine.
Residence: Port Saint Lucie, Florida.
Book: Getting It Right (Akashic Books, June), a novel about half-sisters—one the product of an abusive foster-care situation, the other of dysfunctional privilege—who finally meet during their father’s final days.
Editor: Marva Allen.
Agent: Marie Brown of Marie Brown Associates.

Writing was always my dream. As a girl growing up in the Bronx, I told my friends stories I’d made up but pretended were true. I wrote my first short story when I was twelve. In middle school I’d submit book reports on my own stories with fake author names and receive As. Under my graduation picture in the Evander Childs High School yearbook, next to “Ambition” it said “Writer.” 

Of course, I also read over the years, often consuming a novel a week in spite of a husband, two small children, and going to college full time. I squeezed in moments to read for pleasure, and every novel made me yearn to write my own. 

For forty-two years, like the protagonist Kara in my novel, I suffered the consequences of childhood sexual abuse, before finding a therapist who helped me navigate a healing journey. During the years of gut-wrenching work, I freed secrets and worked through their aftermath. Along the way I met dozens of other survivors. I explored their narratives, motivations, successes, and setbacks. I learned the restorative power of gratitude, redemption, and forgiveness—major themes in my writing. But my goal for Getting It Right was to write a page-turner, not a book about abuse. One early reader described it as a “genre-bending mystery and family saga.” I kept the chapters short and the action fast, and I let Kara and her half-sister, Alex, lead the way. 

My career as a consultant, executive coach, and presenter specializing in philanthropy, opinion research, and organizational management led me all over the world as I taught, spoke, and consulted with nonprofit leaders. Storytelling infused every engagement. In each city, in every new country, I jotted down scraps of thoughts, words, and ideas in small notebooks stashed in my briefcase. Writing on airplanes, in airport lounges, and hotel rooms, I finished the first draft in a year. It took a long time to rewrite.  

Once I was finished—after I had shared the manuscript with trusted readers and revised and polished it—I took the next scary step: I sent the manuscript out in search of an agent. I networked, went to writing conferences, and took classes that included an agent’s review of the first ten pages. I sent it out and then sent it out again, and again.

Everyone says it because it’s true: Rejection is hard. I’m not sure which moments in the long process are the most memorable. The day my agent said she loved the book and wanted to represent me, or the day she told me that she had an offer from a publisher. We ate lunch and discussed the contract. I asked questions, took notes, thanked her, walked out of the restaurant—all quite professional. Once I hit the street, I cried all the way to the parking lot. 

I held my book launch in Australia, at the open-air restaurant at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Sydney Opera House gleaming in the background. It was an intimate affair. My husband joined me, along with two women I’d been writing with online for fifteen years but had never met. We hugged, laughed, and celebrated. In the weeks since, my readings, talks, and signings continue to fill my heart with joy as I keep writing. So far I’ve written two more books, and I’m working on a fourth. 

Another thing everyone says because it’s true: You’re never too old to realize your dreams. 

 

(Photo credit: Robert Osborne)

Tina Carlson

Age: Sixty-four.
Residence: Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Book: Ground, Wind, This Body (University of New Mexico Press, March), a poetry collection exploring the vestiges of war and redemption as a traumatized soldier returns home from WWII carrying a legacy of violence and abuse.
Editor: James Ayers.
Agent: None.

I watched Lucille Clifton, well into her fifties, perform: “these hips are mighty hips. / these hips are magic hips / i have known them / to put a spell on a man and / spin him like a top!” She danced and swayed and made the words into music in a small auditorium at Pacifica University in the late 1980s. I did not yet consider myself a poet, but I could not forget the sensual power of her words.

Ground, Wind, This Body began with the last poem in the book, “Embryo of Light,” which consists of dream fragments from the two and a half years it took to adopt my daughter Mia from China. The dreams came feverishly and took the form of my “pregnancy” with her. A beautiful poet and mentor, Laurie Kutchins, encouraged me to let the language and poems be as strange as the dreams. That permission allowed me to begin the book. I was in my early forties and just beginning to feel I had something of value to say. I am amazed at younger poets who find their voices early and are so strong. My voice, like my life, was fragmented and numbed for much of my early adulthood. In order to find it, I had to begin the long hard work of trauma and substance abuse recovery. My daughter, with her fragmented history, encouraged me to look at mine, and I started to write about how the war that lived inside my father was a force in our family.

This book was written over many years. It was made possible by community and endurance. New Mexico hosts a vibrant and active poetry community, and through workshops, readings, and writing groups, the poems were born. I sent out poems and most were rejected, as was the manuscript, multiple times. It was the power of communal work and exploration that encouraged me to keep going. It is so easy to give up, especially as an older woman with little confidence. I honor my teachers: Joy Harjo, Laurie Kutchins, Joy Jacobson, Valerie Martinez, Margaret Randall, Lisa Gill, Hilda Raz, Lynn Miller, and many others both at the University of New Mexico and in private workshops who bore witness to my efforts and encouraged me to keep going.

Writing and publishing are not competitive sports. Writing is the most important, but reading aloud brings the writing to life and allows for an audience. Listen to and read as many other poets and other writers as you can. Join a group that will root you on through the muck. Keep working on the craft with good teachers. Submit to paper and online journals, newspapers, art shows. Find local presses by talking to poets you know, noting which presses are publishing the books of poetry you love, and doing online research. I was able to publish my first book through the University of New Mexico Press, which has an honorable history of publishing books related to the Southwest. Encourage other poets to publish, to read aloud, to be heard. Buy their books when they come out, go to their readings. We live in a culture that doesn’t read enough poetry, so invite those people who don’t know poetry to go with you to readings. Send them poems you love. Animate the world with your words. 

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Peg Alford Pursell

Age: “Over fifty.”
Residence: San Francisco Bay Area.
Book: Show Her a Flower, a Bird, a Shadow (ELJ Editions, March), a collection of intense hybrid prose—flash fiction, prose poetry, and other forms that resist categorization—that pulls a world of almost terrifying beauty into laser-sharp focus.
Editor: Ariana Den Bleker.
Agent: None.

Recently I returned to the town where I grew up and where most of my family still lives. I went there to attend a wedding, to visit family, and to give readings from my first book in (somewhat) nearby Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. There is still no bookstore in my hometown, nowhere for a girl to window-shop and superimpose her reflection on a book jacket. I grew up knowing no one who made a living by writing, no one who wrote as a matter of course. Until college, I’d never been to a literary reading. 

This experience, or lack thereof, isn’t particularly unique, but it may have a lot to do with why I didn’t take my writing seriously until later in life. I was in my late thirties when I thought about learning to write, seeking entry into a then-unconventional MFA program—Warren Wilson, the first low-residency program (and, I might add, the best in the country). I was a single mother who taught in the public education system. I stole spare moments, usually in summer, to write. And though I’d entered and won a prestigious short story contest, I still didn’t understand my need to write, or to publish as the necessary completion of the creative act. 

During that recent trip to my hometown, I visited my sister and her husband, two lovely and gifted people who paint, play music, teach school—and, for the past year, have run the region’s playhouse. When my vivacious brother-in-law greeted me, he said something that took me aback. I didn’t register the exact words, but they had to do with his excitement about how we three are doing big things at an age when most people are supposed to be winding down—he and my sister taking over the theater and me publishing and promoting my book. 

The surprise I felt was similar to the one that anyone over fifty has experienced when passing the plate glass of a storefront, say, on the way to the post office. You catch your reflection: Can that aged face really be yours? It can. It is. But you go about your business—collecting your mail, recycling junk flyers—and the image is gone, never to supplant the picture of yourself you hold in your mind’s eye. 

Though it’s true that this is my first published book, giving readings, finishing a new book, and sending out work for publication are my daily activities—simply part of what it is for me to be in the world. I’ve come to understand the necessity. And I’ve come to understand that the act of creating follows its own imperatives. Writing—a story, a poem, a book—takes as long as it takes. To publish a first book over the age of fifty? I’m glad to say it doesn’t seem that unusual to me. I’m looking forward to the next one. 

As for practical advice, I’d offer that the essential value resides in respecting your own process and creative imperatives, in pushing through the self-doubts that all art-makers experience—that advice isn’t age-specific, of course. For me it comes to this: Never stop. There exists only one moment—the last—at which it’s too late for anything. 

5 Over 50 Reads 2017

From the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 program to the New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 list, many organizations make a point of recognizing young, gifted authors at the start of their literary careers. In the November/December 2017 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, we feature our second annual 5 Over 50—a selection of five debut authors over the age of fifty whose first books came out this past year. This year’s 5 Over 50 are Jimin Han, Laura Hulthen Thomas, Karen E. Osborne, Tina Carlson, and Peg Alford Pursell. Here, we feature excerpts from their debut books.

A Small Revolution (Little A, May) by Jimin Han
States of Motion (Wayne State University Press, May) by Laura Hulthen Thomas
Getting It Right (Akashic Books, June) by Karen E. Osborne
Ground, Wind, This Body (University of New Mexico Press, March) by Tina Carlson
Show Her a Flower, a Bird, a Shadow (ELJ Editions, March) by Peg Alford Pursell

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Small Revolution
By Jimin Han

1

A woman is running in a field of fallen leaves, and a man is running behind her. It’s early enough in the morning for the sky to be gray and the trees to be black, early enough for me to hear only the sound of her breathing and his breathing, except for that moment when he gains on her, makes contact, and tackles her, and she lets out a high-pitched sound cut short as she hits the ground. This is the view I have from my open dorm window into the quadrangle of Weston College in the middle of Pennsylvania.

2

You told me once about a neighbor who had a border collie named Pirate. One day, you were outside early in the morning and saw two wild rabbits in your neighbor’s yard, two small brown ones, and then you heard the back screen door slam and watched Pirate charge across the grass toward those rabbits. One took off for the bushes on the periphery, and Pirate pursued it while the other stayed absolutely still, like a statue, so still you questioned your own eyes. Was it a sculpture of a rabbit in the neighbor’s yard? Pirate trotted out of the bushes, having given up the chase. He had never paid much attention to you before. But you walked toward the dog, calling him by name, reward­ing him with long petting strokes, and backed away as slowly as you could, leading him away. When you looked up again, the statue was gone.

3

I remain at the dorm window. I stay, even when I see him stand her up and drag her stumbling by the back of her coat. He turns, retracing his steps, searching the ground, and then picks up something he had dropped earlier. He hoists it up and begins to walk forward again, keep­ing his other hand on the woman’s coat and yanking her along. I stay, even when I know he is coming for me, even when I can see clearly that it is your friend Lloyd. I stay because the woman is someone I know well, and in his hand is a shotgun.

4

The screams in the hallway launch me toward the phone. I dial 911, and someone on the other end says, “What’s your emergency?”

I think I’m saying, Come now, please, but a voice on the other end says, “Is someone there? I can’t hear you. Can you tell me what’s happening?”

“Yoona!” It’s Daiyu shrieking in the hall. I drop the phone and run to the door and open it.

There are mud splats on her face. Her black hair a squashed nest. Daiyu Chu is a friend of mine from a dorm across campus. There are grass stains on the knees of her pink flannel pajamas. Her blue sweatshirt with the round Weston College logo is smeared with damp patches. Lloyd appears beside her. He’s got a leer on his face, and his hair is wet, as if he has been caught in the rain.

“Yoona, he’s crazy,” Daiyu sobs. I can’t help but step back, and he pushes her into the room. Daiyu scrambles toward the wall by my bed, moving as far from him as she can get, and hides her face in her hands. “What’s—” is the only word I can say as Lloyd turns, still in the doorway, and raises a shotgun into the hall. More screams, and people scatter, and I hear Heather’s voice. “Yoona, you okay?”

Heather Connelly has a room next to mine. Instead of fleeing, she’s coming. “Don’t!” I call out but Lloyd grabs her by the sleeve of her terry-cloth robe, and Heather reaches for Faye Taverson to save herself as if she is falling off a pier, and Faye is caught off guard, and Heather and Faye are reeled into the room.

Lloyd kicks the door closed. And someone pounds on it from the other side. A voice comes through, calling for me. It’s Joanna, the resi­dent adviser.

GO AWAY I’LL KILL THEM ALL, Lloyd explodes. He shoots the gun. His shoulder jerks back. And it’s as if a grenade went off in the room. I crouch on the floor, my arms over my head. There’s ringing in my ears.

There’s no more pounding on the door after that. I’m aware of Daiyu wailing from the corner behind me and Faye huddled on the bed to my left saying, “Oh my god, oh my god,” over and over again and Heather telling everyone to be quiet from somewhere to my right. I’ve heard gunfire before, but something about this room, this space, is louder than anything I’ve heard.

The sirens, when they come, loop as if they’re fading and then growing louder. Are they coming to rescue us, or is it for someone else?

STOP. Lloyd shouts as if his words are coming out of a body that is itself a gun. STOP. STOP. WHATEVER YOU’RE THINKING, STOP. I’LL MAKE ALL OF YOU STOP.

5

“Wait, Lloyd? My friend Lloyd?” you would say. “What’s Lloyd got to do with this? He wouldn’t have a gun. He wouldn’t do this. I know Lloyd, our Lloyd from Korea? Lloyd, my friend Lloyd?” You wouldn’t believe it. You’d refuse.

And I’d tell you I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

“How’d he get to your college? What’s he doing in your room?” you would say.

I’m trying to tell you.

Listen.

6

My life was simple when I was a child. I walked to school with my older sister. I joined after-school clubs. I went home and did my homework. Some days, after dinner, my father beat my mother. Not often. But there were days when that happened, and in between were the days it was about to.

7

My mother said, “Don’t trust a man, ever.” My sister said, “Don’t trust anyone.” My father said, “No one understands me in this house.”

8

You understood me. You understood Lloyd and me. If you were here in this room, you’d know what to do. What am I forgetting? You said I was good at making lists. To-do lists, to-see lists, to-make-us-remember lists, to-figure-out-how-we-got-here lists. To-tell-you-why-I-could-never-see-you-again lists.

9

The sirens keep coming. Heather holds the palm of her hand to her cheek, and when she takes it away, there’s blood. Behind her in the wall is a four-inch gash as if someone pounded a clawed hammer into it with five circular punctures below it. Buckshot pellets. I know this because my father collects guns.

“Does it hurt?” I say, and she says, “Is it bad?” I remove a pillow from its case and hand it to her. Lloyd is kicking the door in a rhythmic way, shuffling and pacing and kicking, hugging the shotgun to his chest. Is anyone going to come through that door and rescue us?

“Jesus, he’s going to kill us,” Faye says.

He runs at her, the shotgun raised like an axe. WHAT ARE YOU PLANNING BEHIND MY BACK?

I stand up. “Lloyd, what are you doing? The police are here now.”

He whirls at me. OH, SO NOW YOU’LL TALK TO ME. NOW IT’S DIFFERENT, IS IT?

“Lloyd, you don’t have to do this, please don’t do this.”

I’VE GOT PROOF, YOONA. HE’S ALIVE. YOU CAN’T GO THROUGH WITH IT NOW. ADMIT IT.

He means you, and my heart drops every time I’m reminded that you’re dead.

“I don’t understand,” Daiyu whimpers. “What’s happening?”

I can’t explain. I don’t even know myself how Lloyd turned into this. Or is it I who turned into someone who could make him do this?

“What proof do you have?” I say.

I WON’T LET YOU LIE ANYMORE. I LOVED YOU.  

Don’t listen to him. It’s not what you imagine love is. I never chose him over you. Don’t think I forgot about you. I didn’t. He doesn’t mean that kind of love, the one you and I had. He means something else. Something he imagined into being.

“Lloyd, you’ve got to accept it’s over,” I repeat. He acts as if he doesn’t hear me and points the shotgun at Daiyu. I hold my breath. And then he lowers the gun and takes a thick roll of gray duct tape out of his coat pocket. He waves it in Heather’s direction. AROUND HER WRISTS AND FEET. DO IT NOW.

When he throws the tape at Daiyu, she misses it. It hits the floor and rolls, and I bend to retrieve it.

He lunges at me, snatches the tape out of my hands, and shoves it into Daiyu’s. DO IT. NOW. He backs away, raising the shotgun at Daiyu’s head. Tears pour down her cheeks as Heather holds out her arms and says, “Do what he wants. It’s okay, it’s just for now, it’ll be okay, Daiyu.” I meet Heather’s eyes, and she looks over at Faye, and I see that Faye has moved toward the door. Lloyd is intent on Daiyu, watching her fumble, her fingers pulling the end of the tape. Faye maneuvers a little closer to the door.

“I’ll listen to you, whatever it is. Let the girls go and we’ll talk. Put the gun away. If you have proof, show me, and we’ll explain to the police,” I tell him.

He looks at me with hate, and I flinch. Without looking at Faye, he steps sideways and nabs Faye’s ponytailed hair. WHERE ARE YOU GOING?

10

I read a statistic that women who were abused as children have a higher likelihood of being in abusive adult relationships. Physical, sexual, all of it. This didn’t make sense to me. I thought it would be the opposite. I thought it was like what Willa’s friend Albert said about his sister, how she’d been raped and so she never sat on a couch with other people after that. She always chose a chair. A single chair, where no one could sit next to her. After the rape, she couldn’t stand to have a man close to her. Which was why, he said, she wasn’t married now and probably wouldn’t ever be in a relationship again. I thought about that. Did this apply to those who witnessed abuse too?

11

Daiyu has finished taping Heather’s and Faye’s wrists. They’re sitting on the edge of my bed. She’s working on Heather’s ankles. Lloyd has barricaded the door with my desk and chair. “You don’t mean to do this, Lloyd. Think about it for a second. This isn’t going to help Jaesung or you. How can you help Jaesung when you’re in jail?”

YOU SHUT UP. He grabs the tape from Daiyu and throws it at me. I catch it, an instinct to keep it from hitting me in the face. It’s a fat new reel, and it stings my hands. I put it on the desk. If I push it aside and then move the chair, I can open the door and escape. Except he will shoot me in the back. Except my friends will be left with him.

I SAID YOUR ANKLES.

I pick up the tape and loosen the end. It smells like plastic and gasoline.

“I’m not going anywhere, Lloyd,” I tell him.

IF I DIDN’T BRING DAIYU HERE, YOU WOULD NEVER HAVE LET ME IN. TAPE YOUR FUCKING FEET OR—

He takes a handgun out of his other pocket. What else does he have in that long wool coat? The handgun is a black square-nosed thing. He pushes the muzzle into Daiyu’s head.

“Yoona,” she whimpers.

I sit beside Faye and Heather. I tape my ankles together, but not completely, only the front where he can see. He sends Daiyu over to wrap my wrists. The sound of sirens is all around us. Still coming and fading, and now not fading anymore. With so many police cars outside, in a few minutes we’ll be free, won’t we? All I have to do is buy us some time. I hold out my wrists to Daiyu, who has not stopped crying. The tears will keep the tape from sticking, I think, and move my hands so her tears land on the sticky part of the tape, but she doesn’t understand and presses the tape down. I shake my head. “I’m so sorry, Yoona,” she sobs.

YOU’RE JOINING THEM. Lloyd pushes Daiyu next to me. In one swish he has bound Daiyu’s hands, and he hauls her to her feet and puts her on the other side of Heather. He hasn’t taped her ankles. My heart lingers on that small fact. The way she curls up, he won’t notice. Will that help us out of this situation somehow?

Then he returns to my side. And my heart sinks. We’re all in a row. Ducks in a row. And he’s too close. I can smell his sweat like rancid milk. He holds the handgun up in front of my face. TAKE A GOOD LOOK AT IT. YOU COULD HAVE BEEN WITH ME, ON THIS SIDE, THE WAY WE PLANNED. YOU’RE MAKING ME DO THIS. ALL YOUR LIES. I GAVE YOU A CHANCE.

The sirens suddenly stop. He runs to the window overlooking the parking lot, slams the window closed, yanks the left and then the right panel of the curtains. They’re the dark-blue blackout sort. Weston splurged this year. Suddenly it’s dark except for a sliver of light that Lloyd allows by pulling back an edge with a finger so he can see the parking lot. It’s quieter now in the room. I can make out the muffled sound of car doors slamming and low voices speaking. Someone whis­tles as if signaling to someone else. Gravel crunches underfoot. More cars drive up, and engines are cut off.

The phone rings, and Lloyd snatches the receiver and holds it up to his ear but doesn’t let it touch his head, as if he thinks the police can send poisonous gas through it.

THEY’RE FINE. UNLESS YOU DO SOMETHING STUPID. UNDERSTAND?

He thrusts the phone at me. TELL HIM I HAVEN’T HURT ANYONE.

I speak into the mouthpiece. “He hasn’t, but hurry.” Daiyu and Faye join in with their own “Hurry.” Lloyd snatches the phone away, and I can feel his breath on my cheek as he holds the phone between us. SHUT UP OR I’LL TAPE YOUR MOUTHS TOO. They stop.

A man’s voice is on the other end of the phone. He says his name is Detective Sax, he asks if we’re okay, and I look to Lloyd, who nods, so I tell him we’re four of us, four girls. “It’s going to be okay, I promise,” Sax says with such composure I think I might be dreaming this whole thing. “How many gunmen, did you say?” he asks.

“One.”

“Try to stay calm, we’re working on getting you out of there, I promise. If he has a list of demands, tell him to write them down, and I’ll try to get them for him, relax,” he continues.

 “His name is Lloyd, Lloyd Kang,” I reply, and Lloyd removes the phone and slams it into its cradle. I DIDN’T TELL YOU TO TELL HIM MY NAME, he howls and holds the butt of the shotgun above my head.

Daiyu and Faye gasp.

“Don’t, Lloyd. If you hurt us, you won’t get anything you want,” I tell him, looking up at him.

He stares at me, and I can see his eyes are rimmed in red as if he’s rubbed them too hard. YOU DON’T EVEN CARE IF HE DIES IN A NORTH KOREAN SHITHOLE.  

“But he’s not alive, Lloyd,” I remind him. I can’t make myself call you dead. “The accident in Korea, you remember, he’s gone. There’s no one to save.”

YOU LIE, he spits, lowering the shotgun. Where’s the handgun? Is it close to me on the bed? YOU DON’T EVEN LOVE HIM. I CAN PROVE HE’S ALIVE. WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO THEN? HOW ARE YOU GOING TO EXPLAIN TO HIM WHAT YOU WERE GOING TO DO UNTIL I STOPPED YOU?

He waves the shotgun at all of us. YOU’RE GOING TO FREE HIM. HE’S WORTH A HUNDRED OF YOU.

12

Once, in my high school gym, I stepped off the bleachers from the top row, expecting to make my way down as everyone else was doing at the end of a school rally. As soon as my foot found air, I knew something was wrong. Instead of finding a foothold on the level below me, I was falling, and I told myself, I’m falling: I must have time because I’m aware of this, and here is air around me, space and air, I’m falling, I can move my arms, I can put out my hands and brace my fall. So move, now, I told myself, move your arms, get your hands ready. My mind told my hands, my arms, even my legs to adjust, and I was convinced I could still make this happen even as my shoulder slammed onto the polished wooden basketball court, even as my head followed suit, making contact with the surface—I believed I had a chance to affect the way I landed. Stunned, I couldn’t believe how fast the floor had risen to greet me. Hard, unforgiv­ingly hard, and my body ached. I lifted my head. What had happened to my chance? My sister looked down at me from the fifth row, where I’d been moments before, and said, “You fell like a rock.”

13

We sit and wait. Why isn’t Detective Sax calling again? Faye leans into me, and I lean into her. Heather, on the other side of Faye, sits up tall. Daiyu leans into Heather. Lloyd paces, twitching and mumbling at something on his shoulder. From outside, in the direction of the parking lot, come sounds of car doors slamming shut and tires crunching gravel. Loud voices call to each other. I HAVE PROOF. I HAVE PROOF, Lloyd mut­ters as he paces. He jerks the gun around his body. He and the shotgun are one unit, and we are stuck in our places. I hold my breath. He levels the gun with his other hand, pointing it at each of us one by one. I‘LL KILL THEM. I WILL. YOU KNOW I CAN, he shouts at the ceiling.

It’s Heather who talks to him. “The police aren’t going to let you just kill us. They’ll come in any minute. Give up right now and save yourself.” 

 

Excerpted from A Small Revolution by Jimin Han. Copyright © 2017 by Jimin Han. Published by Little A, 2017. All Rights Reserved.

States of Motion
by Laura Hulthen Thomas

Sole Suspect

The body in the road had become a reliable kindness. Tucked nimbly in the sharp dip on Judd Road just past the hairpin curve out of town, the body could be a trick, a blink, exhaustion’s shadow. A chalky moon lit the curve. Beyond the light’s rim, darkness poured into the hollow’s bleak drop. Just in time again, Perry swerved off the road. He parked under the near-headless birch and aspen, canopies shorn wide for the power lines. The shoulder was choked so tightly with brush that Perry’s rusted truck bed jutting into the lane became the obstacle the next motorist might see too late. Perry’s door swung open almost to the head, which didn’t, at first, flinch. Maybe this was the night someone else had finally hit the body.

A harsh wind cut through the bare branches. No buffer now against the chill. Perry’s jacket might as well be his skin. Had the lying in begun before the cold set and the leaves dropped? Perry couldn’t recall when he’d first come upon this body. After the girls had been discovered last month, this he knew. But he couldn’t say when exactly these encounters became routine, and then, necessary.

The body wasn’t waiting for him in that hollow every night. Perry never asked the questions he should ask; that if the body appeared on some nights, why not every night? What erratic calculus of despair determined a night’s decision to lie in wait for collision’s bliss?

#

Perry was awaiting positive identification, which the authorities told him might come tomorrow. A foregone conclusion, since he and the Other Family had immediately identified the girls’ clothes. Remarkably well preserved after twenty years underwater. Elsa’s dressy blouse was laid out on the authorities’ steel table, sleeves thrown out at right angles as if frozen in one of her impulsive hugs. Her denim cutoffs lay below the blouse, a strip of steel gleaming in the gap between hem and waistband like a prosthetic belly. The blouse’s frilly scallops were fringed with mud. Dirt blotted the sleeves. Mud stains dotted the pearly buttons. Not a single button was missing. Not a speck of the mud on the blouse or cut-offs turned out to be aged blood, so the authorities finally knew to rule out foul play. A technician would have removed this blouse delicately from his daughter’s skeleton. The cut-offs would have been pulled cautiously from her hips to avoid dislodging joints, shattering evidence. The silver glittering sandals with the Roman straps, now lake-bed brown with the buckles flaking rust, would have been carefully guided from each foot’s frail boney accordion.

The clothes were pinned and air-dried to stiff, unnatural shapes before Perry and the Other Family were summoned. The living knew that, like the DNA testing that would be compared against samples from their own bodies, identifying the clothes was a formality. The car, a ‘71 Mustang hauled up from the shriveled lake, was well known as the car Perry had given Elsa for her sixteenth birthday. The water level hadn’t dipped so low in a century. Drought had dried up the wells on his out of town properties but had given Perry his daughter back.

He didn’t know how the Other Family felt about closure but he wasn’t about to hand over last hope on a platter to the authorities. He’d studied the items as if he’d never seen these clothes, as if the unearthed car wasn’t his well-known ‘71 Mustang with two female bodies strapped in the front seats, a mangled rear tire that must have blown and hurtled the car off the bridge. He told the authorities he couldn’t positively identify this clothing. Hadn’t too much time passed to be certain? Some items were missing, too. Intimate things. Were the authorities keeping Elsa’s undergarments from his sight out of delicacy? The authorities hadn’t recovered her cheap silver earrings either, but Perry didn’t notice the baubles weren’t among these personal remains.

He was not present when the Other Family identified their daughter’s clothing so he never would know if they’d given up their hope easily, even gratefully.

#

Perry slammed the car door. The body stirred at the sound. Alive, still a man. Perry helped him to his feet. Wrapped his coat around the man’s gaunt shoulders, tucked him gently into the passenger seat. Hurrying for no good reason. If the man was in a hurry to live, he’d have risen on his own. If the man was in a hurry to die, he wouldn’t choose to lie on a road rarely driven after dark. But Perry felt the urgency of their time together. Moving the truck out of the next motorist’s way. Protecting the man from the cold and the country night’s sticky ink. Perry thought that regard for this man’s welfare made him hurry, but the rush was meant to beat the clock on Perry’s dead heart. He could kill this man as easily as he could rescue him, because, given time, didn’t reputation always become character?

This man was not yet Perry’s age, but not young enough to be reckless, to have not thought things through. But, too, not ready to die. He would take to Perry’s care, is how Perry knew. Put his fingers to the dashboard vents. Thaw out, smile a bit, relax into Perry’s coat. He would never begin a conversation and he didn’t tonight, either. Decisions could be made about what to find out and what to leave be.

Perry pulled onto Judd Road. The old F150’s engine rattled now like a lingering cough, but there wasn’t a thing wrong with it. Tonight the man couldn’t seem to get warm. He was fidgety, fretful. He kept rubbing his hands in front of the heater vents, then sticking his fingers between the seat cushions, or in his lap. His smile was one of those Perry envied, radiant and straight. A few facts, released stingily, during their first rides together. The man lived with his parents. They did not know of the roadway roulette. The man would prefer Perry run him over than take him back home.

Perry nursed assumptions: an alcoholic, an unstable, a man diverted from the course of reason. But he did not reek of poisons, did not appear drugged. Perhaps he was one of those users who thrived on fooling his family. Once Perry had looked up the Marion Road address to find the number unlisted, no name attached to the property. He’d poked a bit for the man’s identity. Hadn’t been too diligent. There were certain benefits to the man remaining a stranger.

Perry usually accepted the man’s silences, which he interpreted as invitations to fill, but there came a point when he wanted to crowbar some answers.

–If you want to die, why not choose a busier road?

–I don’t drive, the man told him.

–What’s that got to do with it?

The man blew air into his cupped palms as if about to whistle.

–Out here, where else could I walk to?

The wind picked up, whistled through the F150’s aging window seals. Moonlight shimmered on the pavement like an early frost. The man pointed out the way home even though Perry knew the route, a left down Marion, one of those narrow, single lane dirt roads. There the jarring washboards chiseled by long-ago summer rains would fragment their conversation, save Perry the burden of finding out why this man sought to die.

#

Denise was the other girl’s name. Perry didn’t know what she was wearing the night the girls disappeared. He’d barely spoken to Elsa on her way out, which was why, he told the authorities, he couldn’t say for certain about the clothes. Back when the authorities had questioned him—closely, Perry was the sole suspect—he described Elsa’s glittery sandals, which he remembered flashing on the drab living room carpet. He didn’t tell the authorities how he’d frowned over the cut-offs and dressy blouse. The clingy denim rode too high on her thighs. The Sunday Best top seemed like an insult to Sunday paired with those shorts, and she’d buttoned the blouse up tight to her slender neck. Not a trace of flesh until those long legs, as if she was low-balling the flirtation and he didn’t like her going to a teen party at the gravel pit in the first place. She was wearing earrings, silver dangling baubles that flashed like grins as she told him goodbye.

Should have driven the girls himself, he’d always suffer this guilt. A straight shot down Judd Road, across the bridge over the lake that had taken their lives. He’d have watched them walk up the gravel path to the ridge where the other kids were stoking the bonfire and pulling on beers, shadows against flames on a hot starless night. He’d have noted what Denise was wearing so he could keep tabs on both girls. Parked down the road within sight of the fire. All the way down the path, Elsa’s silver sandals would have twinkled on her slender ankles. He’d craved this vision over the years, her glittering feet like sparklers’ tails tethered to his vigilance. This vision sometimes relieved him from his doomed wonder about why she’d left, and where she’d gone, and when she might return to forgive him for some offense he wouldn’t know to call a crime.

Maybe Denise knew, and that’s why they’d grown close that year. Perry had known Denise only a bit, mostly by the loud laughing voice that overtopped Elsa’s quiet murmur. He’d wondered afterwards whether Elsa’s soft voice was not her natural tone after all, but muted so he wouldn’t hear what the girls were planning on that hot summer’s night. Pretend to go to a party and just keep driving down Judd, which bisected Moon, which doubled back to Michigan Avenue to I-94. Once on the interstate, the girls could vanish before anyone knew to look for them. It was a good plan. It could be done.

Over time, Perry grew to love Elsa’s flight as he loved her. So what if she’d never called? Showed her pluck. She’d made it to a better place, a place he wasn’t meant to find.

The Other Family was convinced that a killer had snatched the girls on Judd Road. After Perry’s arrest, the Other Family was convinced this killer was Perry. Maybe they’d thought him guilty right up until the moment the wheels unexpectedly crested the lake’s murky surface, so near the places that had been searched so methodically, and then hopelessly. Maybe they needed to identify Denise’s clothes and confirm the DNA match to see in Perry the father who had lost what they had lost, who suffered nightmares, spun wild stories, prayed and raged and wept dry as they had. He wondered whether they preferred their beliefs about Perry to the truth, as he preferred the fates he’d concocted for Elsa. Perhaps he would turn out to have been their last hope. Perhaps his killing of the girls would be seen, now, as more sensible than this discovery; the girls’ cruel suspension in gloomy waters, near to the bridge, near to their families, close and unfound until a freak disruption in the rainfall’s seasonal pattern had revealed them.

The grieving should crave closure. The grieving should be grateful the drought offered up to the light their dear ones belted dutifully in their last pose.

Perry’s daughter was thirty-six when she was found, had been dead longer than she’d been alive, and he did not want that corpse, he didn’t.

 

Excerpted from States of Motion by Laura Hulthen Thomas. Copyright © 2017 by Laura Hulthen Thomas. Used with permission of Wayne State University Press. 

Getting It Right
By Karen E. Osborne

 

Alex was trying to understand. A love child, like in some sleazy romance novel? “Tell me.”

Her father shifted, the bedsheets caught between his legs. “It was years ago. Your mother didn’t like to travel and traveling was all I did. I mean, there were no kids, she wasn’t working.”

He sounded accusatory, the way he often did when he spoke about her mother.

“Anyway, in those days DC was one of my regular stops.”

His cough came back full force. Alex searched for something to help him, locating a cup of water with a straw and placing the tip against his lower lip. Several sips later, the coughing subsided, but a sour smell took its place.

He mopped his eyes. “The long and short of it is, I met someone and we fell in love.”

With his peripheral vision, he peered at Alex, who was trying hard to keep her expression neutral. This was not the sort of thing a child, even a grown one, should hear.

“I didn’t go looking, kitten. It just kinda happened.”

She gave him an understanding smile—it was fake, but it did the job.

“She was young and not sophisticated, not well-traveled, I guess I mean. But she was also smart, funny, the kind of pretty that grew on you. We laughed all the time . . .” He trailed off. “Not that I didn’t love your mother. I did. I do.”

Alex squirmed and plucked the corners of the sheet.

“She got pregnant, and she wouldn’t have an abortion.”

Again, he peered at Alex out of the corner of his eye, but she lowered hers.

“I begged her, but she was adamant—a church-going woman.” A mini shrug. “Adoption seemed like the next best choice.”

The silence felt awkward.

“Find her for me, Alex.”

She finally looked up. “Who, exactly?” The woman? Both of them?

“The girl.” His voice dropped an octave. “My other daughter.”

An unintended groan escaped.

“I know this is a lot to ask.” He made it sound as if it weren’t, as if he were waiting for her to deny the craziness of the request. “The last address I have is her grandmother’s in the Bronx.”

Find some kid he conceived while cheating on her mother? A childhood rage welled up. What she couldn’t understand then, and still couldn’t, was why her parents did this to her. What about her needs? What about Vanessa and Pigeon? How was he going to make it right for them? She pushed these thoughts down, swallowing an all-too-familiar bitter brew. New thought: her mother would go apeshit if she knew. If Alex helped him, she would have to keep it under her mother’s exceptional radar.

Her father sank back and closed his eyes. Alex contemplated what she’d just heard. Her mother had accused him of cheating with the regularity of the seasons, and apparently she was right.

* * *

Alex vividly remembered the first time her mother had threatened to kill herself. How old was Alex then, ten? Vanessa must have been six and Monica—known as Pigeon—would have been three.

A trip to France had stretched into weeks, and her mother was sure there was another woman . . . again. Wrapped in an old terry-cloth robe, her small hands peeked out of oversized sleeves.

Screaming into the phone, she held a serrated knife to her wrist. “I’ll do it right in front of your precious daughters—don’t think I won’t.” Blood oozed from beneath the knife’s teeth. “I know you’re with some whore. You think your girls don’t know? You think Alexandra is too young to understand your mongrel ways? Tell him, Alex.” She thrust the phone in her daughter’s face. “Tell him you’re with me and that I’ve cut myself.”

With shaking hands, Alex had taken the phone. “Mommy’s hurt,” she whispered tearfully. “Please come home, Daddy.”

“Don’t cry, kitten.” His voice sounded tired and sad. “I’m on my way. Mommy’s going to be fine.”

“She’s bleeding.”

“Call Aunt Peggy, and take care of the girls until she gets there. Okay, kitten? Can you be a brave girl for Daddy?”

Alex said yes and gave the phone back to her mother.

With a dish towel, her mother staunched the blood flow. Tears creased her makeup. She slipped to the floor, stringy hair damp with perspiration falling into her eyes, the knife and phone clattering on the tiles. That’s when Pigeon walked in.

“Why’s Mommy crying?” Her teddy bear tucked under her arm, she pulled a frayed blanket behind her.

“Everything’s okay, baby girl,” ten-year-old Alex had said. She gave Pigeon a hug, picked up the phone, and dialed Aunt Peggy.

Aunty Peggy and Alex were a tag team.

Almost a year later, Vanessa, who even back then seemed weary of the family dramas, had interrupted Alex studying in her room: “Mommy’s using bad words and littering.”

Alex composed her calmest expression and strode into her parents’ bedroom. The scene was comical today, but not at the time. Her mother stood in her silk nightgown with Pigeon by her side, frosty air rippling the curtains. Mouth agape, Alex watched her mother tear through her husband’s suits with a butcher knife, cutting off the arms of the jackets, slicing the legs and crotches of the pants, and then launching them out the window. Between each thrust, her mother lifted her thumb-sucking youngest daughter, and together they watched the garments sail down to the lawn below.

After her mother hand flung the last shreds, Alex grabbed Pigeon, hustled her sisters out of the room, put them to bed, and once again called Aunt Peggy. By the time Peggy arrived, dressed in a mink coat over a size-sixteen nightgown, Alex and her mother were sitting at the kitchen table pretending to eat canned tomato soup gone cold. Peggy nodded her head toward Alex and joined them—she neither asked a question nor offered a remedy.

 

Worth’s cough brought Alex out of her memories. She wasn’t ten or eleven anymore; she was thirty, with her own almost-successful marketing company. Saying no was an option.

“What’s this person’s name?” she asked.

“Kara Lawrence.” He lifted his body up on his elbows. “I don’t know her adopted name.”

He gave her our name?

“It shouldn’t be too hard to find her.”

Why should she do this?

“I told Martin Dawes to expect your call.” Mr. Dawes was the very proper family lawyer: hooded eyes, tight-collared shirts, subdued ties, sparse dark hair clipped short. “He can give you her grandmother’s name and address.”

“Why can’t he find her?”

“I need you to. I want her to be receptive, to know that I’m sincere. That I care.”

“I have to think about this, Daddy.”

Another coughing spasm wracked his chest. “Better not take too long.”

 

Alex walked out of the CCU, her head down and shoulders slumped.

“Well?” Her mother approached her. “What did he want?” She was already suspicious.

“To see you.” In truth, he had drifted into a fitful sleep, but Alex needed to speak with Aunt Peggy alone.

The moment her mother was out of earshot, Alex asked, “Did you know he had another child?”

Aunt Peggy’s lower lip quivered. “I knew.” She tugged at her suit jacket. “What did he tell you?”

“That he has an illegitimate child out there somewhere. He sounded sad and ashamed—well, maybe ashamed. In a way, I think he blames Mom.” Alex heaved her shoulders. “I think he was more embarrassed to tell me than about what he did.” She looked at Peggy for confirmation but she said nothing. “She was adopted and now,” her voice rose, “he wants me to find her.”

“I never heard any of this from your father. You’d think he would have told me something so important.”

“He was probably trying to protect you.”

Peggy snorted in disbelief.

“He made a mistake and did what he thought best. It’s not like he could bring her home to Mom.” As a kid, Alex envied her friends whose fathers were home every evening, who did what her dad did on those rare times he was around: kissed their children goodnight, read them stories, listened to their prayers.

“Wait, if Daddy never told you, how did you find out?”

“From your mother, of course.”

“Mom knows?” Alex was incredulous. She had thought her mother had no boundaries when it came to complaining to Alex about her father, but obviously she had kept something hidden.

“She said he paid child support for years. That’s how she discovered his grand deception.” Peggy pulled out a hankie and patted her throat. Specks of linen caught in the creases. “Evidently, she found e-mails between your father and that lawyer, Dawes somebody, trying to find evidence of some new misdeed, no doubt.”

“She never said anything to me.”

“Remember when she took a whole bottle of vitamin pills and ended up in the hospital with acute diarrhea?”

Alex closed her eyes for a second.

“You remember, you were maybe six. She had run out of Valium and tried to kill herself on One A Days.”

Alex sat down next to Peggy. She chuckled, but soon it blossomed into a full-throated, hysterical roar. She didn’t remember the vitamin suicide, but it sounded just like something her mother would do. “Oh, Aunt Peggy, what a mess we are.”

“Not so much.”

“A hot mess. Why can’t we be a normal family?”

“I’m not sure there is such a thing.”

“He wants me to find her, this other daughter, before he dies.” She quickly added, “Of course, he’s not going to die.”

“Absolutely not.”

“I don’t want to search for her.”

The two women sat in silence for several minutes. Every few seconds, Peggy patted Alex’s leg or rubbed her back. Then something else occurred to Alex. She peered at her father’s only sibling. “Did you say he paid child support for years?”

“A good deal of money.”

“I thought they put her up for adoption.”

“Oh, that was much later. No, he did the responsible thing and sent the woman money for the child’s education and upkeep. Your mother found the e-mails and called that lawyer.”

“Martin Dawes. He’s supposed to help me find her.”

“He was the one who explained everything.”

“But why adoption after . . . how many years?”

“The woman died.”

“Her mother died and Daddy thought adoption was best?”

“When you say it like that . . .”

“How else could I say it? Jeez, Aunt Peggy.” Alex stood up and paced. “What do you know about her, the kid?” From the expression on her aunt’s face, Alex knew she sounded angry again. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to yell at you. This is just so upsetting.”

“Of course it is. Shameful. Anyway, I don’t know anything more.”

“All he told me is that her name is Kara and she was born in DC. You have to know something else about her.”

“Your mother never gave me any details.” Peggy pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “It’s not like he didn’t have tons of affairs from the day they were married.”

“Tons?”

“I’m sorry, Alex.”

Other women from day one? Alex sat down. Did he ever even love her mother?

“I do know that the child was born the same year you were, and that infuriated your mother even more than the affair.”

How much worse could this story get?

Peggy pursed her lips and continued: “She’s black—African American, I guess I’m supposed to say, you know, to be politically correct.” She made air-quotes around the words.

Alex cringed. Both Aunt Peggy and her mother had a list of people they didn’t like. When Alex brought home friends from school who were Asian, Latina, or black, she lived in dread that either would say something stupid, and they usually did. After a while, Alex stopped inviting friends over.

The photograph in the desk drawer flashed into Alex’s mind; the one of the black woman and the little girl with honeyed skin and long braids. “Did Daddy visit them? Did he ever take me?”

“I wouldn’t know.”

That woman seemed happy in the picture, and her father was laughing. There was something familiar about the girl: her wide-set eyes, shaped like Alex’s, just a different color—Alex’s were violet like her father’s, Kara’s were brownish-gold. Even her eyebrows arched like Alex’s, and the high cheekbones were definitely a Lawrence trait, as if someone had snuck into a Native American’s bed back in the day.

Peggy cocked her head to one side. “What are you going to do?”

“Find her, I guess,” Alex replied, surprising herself. Then she realized her response was no surprise at all. “He’s counting on me.”

 

Excerpted from Getting It Right by Karen E. Osborne. Copyright © 2017 by Karen E. Osborne. Used with permission of Akashic Books (akashicbooks.com) and Open Lens.

Ground, Wind, This Body
By Tina Carlson

The Burial

My father buries the bird
in a bland field: a crow still glossy
with its memory of flight
and release. How he finds himself there in that brief
digging, fingering the dirt
of his children’s field, the small nest he
quarries there,
how gently he lays that
blackbird down as if it is the heart
he once carried in his own boy’s chest
before the war
and shock of his life
shot him down and placed him here,
burying what used to fly
in the fall weeds
and grave of ground.

 

Instead of Light

1.
The night is fat with cold and cloud,
the den a holy cave, gleaming
teeth and eyes, a hungry place,
a mouth. I arrive with my father
in my yellow pajamas. It is one a.m.
though my father’s eyes shine
blue like a dome of morning
sky. I was dreaming of birds
falling from a sky of milk—

The pornographer prays to the gods of stupor
and submission. Loves to open what has never
been opened, turned on by the camera’s endless click,
the sacred theft. Our child bodies lie on little
green tables with the metal taste
of a gun in our mouths. The small meat of our bodies
shared by the pack of parents and assistants—

I watch through a grimy window
the mirrored light of the moon, believe
a lamp. It shines back at me, across
the broad diameter of night where I am
the pain of not-enough-air.
TV commercials blare in the next room, the heater clicks.
The moistened mouth of a woman tells me I am nothing,
silence is my only currency. She is a bear
standing over my small perch where I learn
to unstitch myself from the harrow of bone and skin.
This becomes a definition of home: the infinite mouth of night,
air made of feathers.

Outside, snow falls quiet as a moth.
Settles over the town its cold white gift
of cover-up. My father pockets the money
he gains, spent by morning on milk and bread.

2.
Tiny rivers of blood in my ears
a pulsing tide, icy feet, mind made
of song and the sugary taste of words.
Like pale, crisp, luminous. Blood is a rose
on the morning snow. I shine an orange light
over the syllables, then play
with their shadows on the walls.
Glint, curve, ashen.
Hunger becomes soup, cold a warm bath.
The grime of my father’s hands, a milky solace.
I stand behind the innocent child he wanted to be.
Limbic, shorn, silent.

3.
Each night I die there again
on the little green table, fear the beds whose skins
I peel back to rest, the predatory breath
of night. Trees shudder their dry leaves
in a breeze. I dream the moon is a wide lit face,
floats to the ground and waits outside
our home. A man who loves plants opens the door
of her mouth and gathers up the child you were,
years ago, places you in my arms
like a bouquet.

4.
You too knew the teeth of that place.
You become a running star, the fastest legs
in town. You will race from your home to mine
and we will hide in a cave of tree branches,
sugar our mouths with licorice and the
green stalks of weeds. Speed is your balm,
you are mine, my first love, my mirror.
We never speak of the captive nights but fill
ourselves with sweets in the day’s free heat.
When you are grown, ready for your final
escape, you will remember the gun, harbor it
in your college dorm room for weeks. They will find you fetal,
wrapped around its unexploded body like a cocoon.
An empty bottle of pills under your last pillow.
No note, but I understand your message,
Only I can write that gun out of my own mad mouth.

5.
I love to lie on the ground
for her ballast of living green and holiness of dirt.
A valence of quiet, the undertow of magma
pulsing through. Her body is the dense memory of our histories.
Every moon of thought, every motion of kindness
and cruelty, transmuted.
I am buoyant lying there, on her whirling
heft, her lap a curve and horizon. Sum of loam
and fracture, we breathe in unison on cracked ground,
sea bottoms. I am a canyon cut deep, a list of fault lines.
She tames me with her touch.

 

I Wish You Were Here

The river is a woman singing of heartbreak
surrounded by birds and smooth
pockets of stone. I wish you were here
instead of blowing across the dry field
as dust. In the sleek fur of my dreams
you rustle up stories about
children who live in the sun.
I love everything
I remember and don’t remember
about you. In the wood of your chairs
live savannahs we might
have seen, full of animal scents
and the lovely emptiness of years
between my life now
and your hands, pointing the way.

 

Excerpted from Ground, Wind, This Body: Poems by Tina Carlson. Copyright © 2017 by Tina Carlson. Used with permission of University of New Mexico Press.

 

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Show Her a Flower, a Bird, a Shadow
By Peg Alford Pursell

Day of the Dead

When I was a child, Day of the Dead meant sugar skulls, staying up past midnight, marigolds, burning copal, blazing votives. I didn’t recognize any of the faces in the photographs on the altar. Now I have my own dead—and no sweet bread, hot wax, or tequila to lure them, no fancy papel picado.

The dead come anyway, in fragments, perforated memories. My grandmother wearing a man’s fedora, a secret greeting card folded into her dress pocket. My grandfather, who burned basura in his basement fireplace sending obscene odors throughout the neighborhood, whose last act was to eat a bowl of strawberry ice cream in the middle of the night. The boy I smoked pot with behind the brick chimney in the attic of his parents’ home, wrapped up together in his sleeping bag. He confessed he had no plan for after graduation, and he laughed, and he never needed the plan. The stillborn girl, who looked like a baby bird with bulging eyes, curled in a nest under the acacia. The man I’d once thought was the one, who wasn’t, and whom I couldn’t live with once I understood that, who on a tear of amphetamines put a gun to his head.

The dead.

I want a belly of bravery. I want to know the kindness sent out of the cage of the heart. An eye that never becomes insensate to the invisible spectrum, an ear that never dulls to the song of the pulse. The night grows long until it’s short, and the sweetened tongue kisses the breath, and the breath is the breath is the breath.

 

Dislocation

The girl arrived in a wooden crate, fighting the space for air with moths. Her belly swollen, yet empty. Tiny mouth askew. I once loved the smell of sawdust. He takes her down the hall. His wedding ring glimmers. They retreat to the spare room with shelves of unlabeled green bottles, the high window of colored glass glinting like blood. I go outside to study. Broken pieces of language from the guidebook. Sit on the curb in the baking light. At my side the pocketbook he got me at the farmers’ market, a diamond pattern etched into the strap. I try to feel only my concentration, desire for success. In spite of the heat, my mind frozen. The bird’s white wings blur in the sun.

 

Petal, Feather, Particle

Show her a flower, a bird, a shadow, and she will show you what is simultaneously forming and falling apart. What is both witness and sign along the way on this rough earth, a shell already cracked. She’d thought she could raise a child with only minimal intercession but now, as she was being driven to the hotel, found herself looking up at the ceiling of the car, mumbling a quiet prayer. Her daughter was like her: too quick to do everything.

The girl’s father had been someone she once knew, or thought she had, a man who laid her in repose on the bed and gave her waist a tender squeeze before arranging her hands on top of her, placing the right over the left, palm over knuckles. He studied her in that corpse-like pose, letting his glass with the float of lime warm in his hand, before his mouth captured hers.

She’d come in from that life long ago, covered child rearing herself. To say that she had managed well would be to deny the truth of the flower, the bird, the shadow.

She would try to give her daughter a talk, though surely the young woman too understood there is nothing available to speech, no wild and strange language that can reveal the organizing principle that pulls the body toward its center. This trivial fact of human nature. Composition and decomposition. Of every petal, feather, and light particle.

But it was only kindness, necessary kindness, that she try. And so they were scheduled to meet in the hotel by the harbor, a place where she thought the sea would soothe her, where she would set out to speak in the way gondoliers push their boats away from the Venetian docks.

A girl in trouble: the expression implied that the girl was in danger, contained her own peril. She would make clear to her daughter that this wasn’t so. Now you won’t likely become a famous dancer in Russia, she would say to her girl, and they would share a small smile at the idea that her daughter might have ever entertained such an aspiration.

What her daughter had ever wanted she truly didn’t know, and that knowledge was contained within her, a small sunken place, heavy and aching.

It was not too late to learn, she reassured herself, but was this simply another beautiful idea she was still trying to believe? And if so, where was the love in that?

The car pulled up in front of the hotel with its grand façade. She wanted to cry out, fly toward the glittering ocean, a rose gripped in her hands, petals littering her shadow as it disintegrated over the deep waters.

 

She Wanted

to be the girl who came into the restaurant where her family waited to celebrate her and when she entered they each would say congratulations.

And many would mean it.

At least one.

 

I Should Let You Go

She phoned him at work just because, no real reason. It had simply occurred to her to give him a call like they used to do when they were new. To hear your voice, they’d say by way of explanation. The kitchen, early morning, was sunny, and lightened her spirits; she’d woken up in a mood, something wrong but nothing really. They had no real problems.

She dialed and poured a glass of water and stood waiting for him to answer, looking out the window at the tender magnolia blooms close to the glass, the sky behind so blue it could crack.

He answered, his voice sounding rushed and, when he heard that nothing was wrong, quizzical. He answered her questions. Yes, his morning was going fine, busy, too busy, he was glad she called. The searching tone infected his voice.

She said again, No real reason. Her eyes returned to the magnolia, a lump forming in her throat.

He gave a short laugh, evidently talking to someone nearby, and she said she should let him go, and he said, no, no, he was just walking over to the café for another cup of coffee to put down his gullet.

She wished they talked more kindly about themselves. To put down my gullet was an expression that had come from her mother. Get some food down your gullet.

Harsh, he agreed. She swallowed. She said she supposed there was some love in the words, as in reverse psychology. She tried to tease out the idea as she talked, and he laughed a little louder. Someone else on his end laughed, too.

She could try to explain that her mother wasn’t able to show softness, not even in her language, that her mother didn’t want anyone to know how much she cared. It seemed that this could be true; she wanted it to be.

His voice was loud, asking, What did you say, hello? Are you still there? When we met I thought, he said, lowering his voice, she is the biggest small person in the world. You walk into the room and fill it up.

This was catching love in words, a kind of contagion, because she wanted to believe what he believed, and knew it could grow and, if they were lucky, not like a sickness. She could go on with this thinking, her throat aching, or they could say goodbye. She filled her body with breath, and turned away from the window.

 

Human Movement

The coldest summer in forty-odd years, earthquakes in places there’d never been, and her mother dying in a hospital bed across the country. She bought plane tickets. He went to fill up the car. She waited by the curb for him to drive up and take them to the airport. Waxy juniper shrubs set in tired gray bark chips lined the sidewalk. Something about the bushes. They could sense lost causes. The car was waiting now, the impatient engine exciting the air, warming her legs. What would it be to get in and simply ride hour after hour, no destination?

They arrived in the middle of the night at the house of her sister who lived near the hospital. No one was awake, but on the phone earlier her sister had directed her to take the room with the unmarked black door just at the head of the stairs.

Inside smelled vaguely of cedar and cinnamon. On the bureau top rested a matchbook with an image of a pineapple on it above the name of an inn in Costa Rica. Next to the matches, an ancient volume of Mother Goose.

She knew she should sleep before it was time to see her mother. But she found an eyelash on her pillow and sleep felt impossible. She sat in the chair by the window, listening for snores, for any sounds that might mark the whereabouts of the others in the house. He stretched out across the top of the covers and propped his head on his hand. Let’s take a shower, he suggested, and because she ultimately could find no real objection, she agreed.

Divided, they didn’t understand the rules that kept them separate. It was something to do with the swirling waters of the world of the dead. Of the dying, he said. Steam rose and water slid down their bodies.

She stepped out from the shower onto the gold-rimmed mat, where he waited holding out a towel. Droplets of water clung to the hair on his chest above the towel wound around his waist. He made appreciative noises in his throat as he eyed her nakedness.

She avoided looking at his face to see what expression would win there. She didn’t want to share her body. She had shared enough of it already. Her mother’s body: isn’t that what it was saying?

He stepped away from her and finished drying. Light began to crack through the gap under the window blind. She raised the blind and saw a large bird leave the limb of the tree beside the glass, no doubt startled by her human movement.

The bird, species unknown, flapped his leathery-looking wings, perhaps in a panic, before it dropped. She opened the window and looked out.

At the sound she released he rushed to her side.

They stood, heads out the window, looking down at the patio bricks where the fallen bird lay still. They didn’t speak of what would happen next.

 

Excerpted from Show Her a Flower, A Bird, A Shadow second edition by Peg Alford Pursell. Copyright © 2017 by Peg Alford Pursell. Excerpted by permission of WTAW Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

5 Over 50 Reads 2016

From the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 program to the New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 list, many organizations make a point of recognizing young, gifted authors at the start of their literary careers. In the November/December 2016 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, we feature five debut authors over the age of fifty—Desiree Cooper, Sawnie Morris, Paul Vidich, Paula Whyman, and Paul Hertneky—whose first books came out this past year, and who stand as living proof that it’s never too late to start your literary journey. Here, we feature excerpts from their debut books.

Know the Mother(Wayne State University Press, March) by Desiree Cooper
Her, Infinite (New Issues Poetry & Prose, March) by Sawnie Morris
An Honorable Man (Emily Bestler Books, April) by Paul Vidich
You May See A Stranger (TriQuarterly Books, May) by Paula Whyman
Rust Belt Boy: Stories of an American Childhood (Bauhan Publishing, May) by Paul Hertneky

 

Know the Mother
By Desiree Cooper

The Disappearing Girl

My minivan churns impatiently as I wait in the long queue. Up ahead, it’s easy to spot my daughter in the gaggle of starched, school-crested shirts and navy-blue pants. She’s the only one with brown eyes and skin to match. She’s the only one whose thick, black hair is tamed into stiff braids.

She is standing apart, her eyes scanning the row of cars, a refugee on a hostile shore waiting for an airlift. When she finally sees our car, she shoulders her heavy book bag—too full of academic pressure for a fourth grader—and a smile lands on her face. She is not ashamed to show me the beautiful Wolof gap in her front teeth. She waves desperately, as if otherwise I might miss her, the lone black child in a sea of white.

Finally, she opens the door and jumps into the back seat. “How was your day?” I say brightly, swallowing the stress of having to pick her up from private school every afternoon. She buckles in and opens her daily treat—today it’s a bag of Doritos and bottled tea. No time to get to the store for apples. Bad mom.

She says nothing, but munches quietly and looks out the window. We pass the blond girls yelling things out of car windows like “Call me if you want to go riding!” or “Don’t forget your swimsuit!”

At ten, my daughter wants, more than anything, to be chosen. She has a crush on Henry Frank (the kids call him HankFrank, as if it were one word). My daughter has a chance with HankFrank because he is funny-goofy, already eccentric, probably gay.

I turn off the radio, which I always do when the kids are in the car, just in case something bubbles up from their mysterious lives. Lately, my daughter has become impenetrable. When I hug her, she stiffens. Even though I am her lifeboat, she will not touch me. She is the kind of lonely that cannot be explained, so it becomes someone else’s fault. Mine.

“Did you know that I am invisible?” Her words come in a scratchy little-girl voice, but she is too old for make-believe. She is stating a fact. My heart is a block of ice. I glance at her in the rearview mirror. She keeps eating Doritos vacantly.

Suddenly, I am six. It is 1967 and my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Houston, is so severe, every inch of me wants to please her.

I figure out after the first day that I am smarter than the other kids. The white kids. Every day, I want prove my worth to Mrs. Houston by giving her the right answers. She calls on the other children; I don’t understand why she doesn’t see me. I stretch my hand higher, accent my eagerness with a few “Ooh, oohs,” but still she gazes over my head to the dolt behind me with the ruby curls.

This is not what I had imagined when I’d longed to go to school. I’d dreamed of friends and books and scissors and the sweet smell of paste. I dreamed of chalk scraping on the board and gold stars on my homework. I never dreamed I would disappear.

My daughter finishes her Doritos and crumples the bag loudly. I stop the car in front of the manicured lawn of a stranger. I get out and open my daughter’s door. She tracks me wide-eyed, afraid that she is in trouble. I unlock her seat belt and pull her out of the car. Her classmates peer at us curiously as they drive by in their moms’ SUVs. She doesn’t know it yet, but after today, my daughter will never see them again.

I take her shoulders and gaze into her eyes. I look at her so long that the hard resentment of her spine bends toward me. Her anger softens to tears.

“I can see you,” I say, taking her into my arms.

 

Know the Mother

As I wash my mother’s back, her scent fills my nostrils. Already, she smells like a garden unearthed, a freshly dug grave. I soak the cloth in warm water and witch hazel; she sighs as I swab her shrunken thighs, her shriveled feet.

“Don’t leave me,” I plead beneath my breath. She twitches and my heart leaps—maybe she’s changed her mind and has decided to stay with me a little longer. But for the next three hours, she gives me nothing to hold on to—not one fluttering eyelid, not a wan smile of possibility. She is leaving me so easily, I wonder if her love ever rose above duty.

Two months ago, I was bringing warm sheets up from the dryer in the basement. As I reached the top of the stairs, I could hear Mother singing. I dashed around the corner, half expecting to see her remaking her bed, lifting the mattress to miter the corners.

But when I reached her room, nothing had changed. Her hair was still a thin layer of down. Her cheeks were still sallow. Her shoulder blades jutted beneath the summer blanket as if she were hiding her favorite book beneath the covers. Yet somehow as she slept, she was a young woman again, singing.

At her bedside, I doze without resting. I dream that my mother is dressed in a black taffeta gown. Her cheeks are rouged with stage makeup, her eyes shimmering. On cue, she makes her way to the curtain. I call her name three times, but nothing I say can make her look back.
 

Excerpted from Know the Mother by Desiree Cooper. Copyright © 2016 by Desiree Cooper. Excerpted by permission of Wayne State University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Her, Infinite
By Sawnie Morris

Sunlight Hardens on the Bed

In the next room,
handmade cabinets open, shut. A crashing sound
and the man’s voice calls out glass. Scalene, obtuse,
with a generous curve. Another woman’s voice
from the speaker-phone enters. They are stringed instruments,
so events happen quickly. The spatula scrapes against
the body of the skillet. The brain rewires itself
tonographically, as though just being someplace warmer
could change the music. Fire at will, he says,
when they return to the house on the mesa
in a sky like ice water, stars tinkling. Shards
reminiscent of sails, and he carries the broken
in a box alongside the kitchen island and out
the back door, its window tracked by drippings
summer oil left. Nothing to protect either of them
from the heart’s investment. Divested of all else,
what she learns will be survival
without guilt. What he learns will be startled
dependence on   the  not   mapped .
 

Inland See (II)
re: “Deepwater Horizon” catastrophic oil spill, June 2010 

Grandmothers scoop up a light-net,
haul pelican (in the spirit world) like fish—
and fish. Or net the sludge,
thick ooze, and how-to
staunch a puncture. (Sometimes
we must protect ourselves, we said of television,
internet.) Our fingers
over dinner, splay—were we? Eating a bird,
we become it.
 

And Afterward, to Eat Oranges 

—to dust off the dark spots of oil
and clean my face. 

A draft, sinewy and luminous
wraps across our vision.
In a haven of smoke, cars throttled past.
¡Qué silencio en las iglesias! Someone
on a phonograph plays the cymbals, tapping them lightly
as in a dream when you kiss me awake.

The clamoring of spirits springs up inside the piano.
What are we waiting for, those of us who hear?
Already a waif with torn clothes and a finger,
I want you like a tight fit, like a swallow under eaves.
 

A Sand Trail w/ Stone Walls & Configurations 

For a while I am walking along a path
next to a river. A sand trail
w/ stone walls & configurations.
I dream more prosaically at night
and for a while I am aware she is following.
Then she is no longer a poet, but a lion.

The house is bright and quiet when I wake,
and I hear water draining from the bath.
Some days I am a morning bedside chatterbox.
Others I am on my way south to see the
great whales. That’s the circumstance
in which she is at her best and most natural.

In a house made of wood, the main task
is making collages—she has a box-full,
though I think to myself, no thanks,
this life is not the circus for me.

At one point I go for a walk near the ocean.
At the stone dock a speed boat races past
and crashes into what is called a jetty.
I think surely there will be injuries and admit

there are moments I envy the alcoholics,
the way they do that disappearing act
into something else. A man shoots
a very old very loud gun in every
direction. It is a way of keeping time,
the equivalent of church bells.

She was so handsome I felt completely,
almost completely unworthy. And when she went
into the sand dunes and I heard a cry,
I was afraid. I raced to find her, but no
need to be distraught. She was content,
leaning against a large stone beside the river,
complicated, in the shade.
 

Excerpted from Her, Infinite by Sawnie Morris. Copyright © 2016 by Sawnie Morris. Excerpted by permission of New Issues Poetry & Prose. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

An Honorable Man
By Paul Vidich 

WASHINGTON, D.C., 1953

Mueller stood at the apartment’s third-floor window and said to the FBI agent, “It’s been too long. He won’t show.” He ground his cigarette into the overflowing ash tray. “We’re wasting our time.”

“He’ll come. He can’t resist the bait.”

Mueller looked across the icy street at the dilapidated apartment building separated from the sidewalk by a wrought iron fence. Bars protected first-floor windows. There was no activity and there hadn’t been since he’d arrived. A streetlamp at the corner cast its amber glow up the block, but it didn’t reach the stoop. An unmarked car stood at Twelfth Street NE and Lincoln Park, and a black Buick was around the corner, in the alley, out of sight, but Mueller had seen it on his way over. Further up the block, an agent waited in the dimly lit phone booth, self-conscious with his newspaper.

“He’s been scared off.”

“He has no reason to believe we’re here.”

“He doesn’t need a reason. It’s instinct. Even an amateur would wonder why that man’s been in the phone booth an hour. For you it’s a job.” Mueller dropped the curtain. “It’s his life. He knows.”

Mueller glanced at his watch. “When do you call it quits?”

“There’s time. We spotted her making the drop at five. She’s Chernov’s wife. She went in the lobby with the package. She came out without it. He’ll come.”

“You’re sure it was her?” Mueller asked.

He waited for FBI agent Walker to respond. Mueller thought Walker flamboyant, enjoying his status as agent-in-charge, eager to hunt. He dressed the part: dark hair combed straight back, polished shoes, double-breasted suit, and thin moustache like a Hollywood leading man. Through the window street sounds spilled into the darkened apartment—a car’s honk, a woman’s anger. The agent raised opera glasses and scanned the street and then shifted his attention to the edge of Lincoln Park. Automobiles cruised single men sitting alone on wood benches. A giant mound of dirty snow from the weekend storm buried parked cars.

“We know it was her,” Walker said in his drawl. “We have surveillance. Two cars. She left the Soviet embassy, took a taxi to the residence, and walked here with the package. It’s still inside.”

Mueller waited. He looked at his watch again, and then without thinking, he did it again. Waiting was the hardest part. He moved to the center of the room. There was the rank smell of cigarettes in the small apartment, half-drunk coffee cups, and the wilted remains of a take-out dinner. All waiting did was give him time to be irritated. He took a tennis ball from the table and squeezed it, working out his tension, squeezing and resqueezing. At another window he lifted the curtain. The street was dark, quiet, empty. Walker didn’t understand that double agents lived in fear, chose their time, and that a cautious man wasn’t going to take an unnecessary risk.

Lights in the building across the street were dark except for a top-floor apartment. A big woman at the window pulled her sweater over her head and then reached behind to undo her bra. Mueller looked then glanced away. A light on the second floor. Had someone entered the building lobby? Through the window an older man stood in boxer shorts before an open refrigerator. He drank milk straight from a quart bottle and then he shuffled off to the kitchen table and sat by a console radio. Mueller looked back at the top floor, but the curtain was drawn.

How long should he stay? Walker and his men wouldn’t abandon the stakeout until long after it was an obvious bust. No one wanted to admit failure, or have to invent excuses. Mueller was officially just an observer.

He saw a young man with a notepad approach from across the room. Crew-cut, freckled face, no tie, boyish smile. Too young for this type of assignment.

“You the CIA guy?” the young man asked.

Mueller narrowed his brow. “Who are you?”

“The Star.” He lifted the press badge hanging around his neck.

Mueller confronted Walker by the fire escape window. Two men standing inches apart in the darkened apartment. Mueller snapped, “What’s he doing here?”

“He’s okay.”

“We said no press. No surprises. No embarrassments.” He didn’t hide his anger.

“I had no choice,” Walker said laconically.

Mueller gave the agent-in-charge a cold, hard glare and considered who in his chain of command had authorized a reporter. He held back what he wanted to say, that under the circumstances the best outcome for the CIA was that their man didn’t take the bait, didn’t show. “We had an understanding,” Mueller said. “This wasn’t it.”

“He’s a kid. He’ll write what he’s told to write.”

“What does he think is happening?”

“Vice squad got a lead on a State Department guy who cruises Lincoln Park. Security risk. We arrest him and book him. Metro Police give the kid the story. He’ll write what he’s given.”

Mueller headed to the apartment door.

“Where are you going?”

“A little fresh air.”

Walker raised his voice so that it carried to Mueller in the hall stairway. “He’s okay.”

Outside, Mueller stood hidden from view on the top step of the building’s stoop. He lit a cigarette. Habit. Then thought better of it and flicked it in the snow. His eyes settled on the empty street where he saw nothing to change his mind that the night was a bust. The Capitol Building fretted the tree line of the park, a gleaming dome in the night, a navigation point above the neighborhood’s sprawling poverty. In the distance Mueller heard the anxious wail of a police siren and then behind him, the soft click of the door closing. He saw Walker. They stood side by side without talking.

“I hear you’re leaving the Agency,” Walker said.

“Who told you that?”

“One of the guys.”

Which guy? Mueller nodded. “If we get him tonight I’ll be gone by the end of the month.”

“What’s next?”

“Fly-fishing.” A lie.

“That will last a while.”

Mueller didn’t indulge Walker’s sarcasm. He didn’t like Walker, but he tolerated him, and he kept him close to keep himself safe. Walker was too ambitious for Mueller’s taste, quick to take credit for success, quick to blame others for his own mistakes. Mueller didn’t like Walker’s having that detail of his personal life. He kept private matters away from his job, but the daily grind made that hard. Each morning he got up to face the endless urgency of ambitious colleagues inventing useful crises. Politics had taken over everything. He was tired of the double life, the daily mask, and he’d lost his ability to appear interested in a conversation when he was bored out of his mind. Walker bored him. But he knew Walker well enough not to trust him. Walker was a good weatherman of Washington’s changing political winds and he was a good spy hunter.

Mueller’s exhale came at last. “Where’d you get the tip?”

“The mailbox on East Capitol we’ve been watching. Someone left a chalk mark. This is the dead drop.”

“You know, or you think?”

“She left the lobby without the package. What else would it be?” Then, confidently, “He’ll come.”

The two men stood in the dark. “I don’t get it,” Walker said. “Great reputation, but your results stink. Vienna was a failure. So was Hungary. Last week you lost Leisz.” Walker paused. His breath fogged in the chilly night air. “Word is you guys got the news Stalin died by listening to Radio Moscow.” Walker flicked his butt to the snow. “Great reputation, but your results stink.”

“Piss off,” Mueller said. He thought about the damn fool Leisz. Ignored the rules after he’d been warned, thinking he wasn’t at risk, then got sloppy and paid for it.

“Someone’s coming.” A voice from the window above.

Mueller and Walker saw the young black woman at the same time. Blond wig, leopard-skin coat, stiletto heels, and a tiny rhinestone purse clutched in one hand. She had emerged from the tree line at Lincoln Park and glanced both ways before making a two-step hustle across the street. Mueller and Walker stepped back deeper into shadow.

When she achieved the opposite sidewalk she glanced over her shoulder. Mueller followed her line of sight to the streetlamp cleaving the darkness at the park’s edge. From the trees stepped an army enlisted man. Mueller saw the drab sameness of style of someone who sought to fit in, go unnoticed. Long khaki coat, a visor cap pulled down on his forehead, and a steady stride that didn’t bring attention to itself. She baited him with exaggerated hip movements and a calculated head nod. The start of another war had kept Washington filled with single men, and with single men came dreary bars with women who sold themselves.

“He won’t come with this sideshow,” Mueller said.

“They’ll leave. Hail a taxi. Go to a hotel.”

Mueller lit another cigarette and then regretted his choice again. He ground it under his heel. Drinking and smoking, two occupational hazards that had begun to wear on him.

The woman walked up the block, but slowed her stride to allow the man to catch up. The air was cold and crisp, sharp like flint. Suddenly she stopped. The two talked on the sidewalk. A bargain was struck.

“There’s something odd about him,” Mueller said.

“Odd?”

“The uniform. His shoes. He’s wearing loafers.”

The enlisted man opened the iron gate for the woman and then followed her up the steps to the apartment house lobby. He shot a glance over his shoulder before disappearing inside.

“What are you saying?” Walker asked. “It’s him?” Then a demand. “You think it’s him?”

“Not my call.”

Mueller saw Walker’s discomfort and he felt the torment of the decision he faced. Both men knew it would be impossible to recover from a bad call.

“So be it,” Walker muttered. He pulled on his glove, stretching his fingers deep into the leather, and clenched a fist.

Mueller watched the FBI assemble. Walker signaled his agent in the phone booth, who in turn placed a call. It took a minute, or less, for the Buick and two unmarked cars to converge on the apartment building. Two agents, handguns drawn, stepped from the first car and hustled up the steps to the lobby. Four other men took up positions at their cars, and one crouched agent scrambled toward the rear of the building.

Walker stood in the street barking orders to his team, and the sudden noise brought neighborhood residents to their windows. They saw black cars stopped at oblique angles on the street, doors flung open.

Mueller stayed out of sight, alone. He saw an FBI agent escort the army enlisted man down the stoop tightly gripping his arm. The enlisted man had lost his hat, his wrists were handcuffed behind his back, and his unbuckled pants rode down his hips. He looked dazed and embarrassed.

A second agent had cuffed the prostitute and guided her, protesting, toward a car. Her wig was gone and she was hobbling on one broken heel, shouting fierce baritone obscenities at the agent who hustled her down the steps.

“Don’t rush me,” the transvestite yelled, “I’ll sprain an ankle.”

Mueller waited until Walker emerged from the apartment lobby and then he stepped out from his hiding spot. They met halfway across the street, Walker agitated, his face twisted in a scowl. He waved a stack of bills at Mueller as he walked past. “Keep this farce to yourself,” he snapped. “Don’t say a thing. Not a word. Hear me?”

Walker slipped in the Buick’s front seat and slammed his door shut. In a minute the cars were all gone and Mueller stood alone. There was one orphaned stiletto heel on the sidewalk that he dropped in a garbage can.

He walked rapidly away. He didn’t bother to look behind to see if anyone noticed him, or to check on the curious neighbors. But at the end of the street he happened to turn. An instinct he’d acquired in Vienna after the war, the feeling of knowing when he was being observed. There at the corner in the shadow of a mature tree, a tall man in a gray homburg, hands shoved in the pockets of a long trench coat. There was something suspicious about the figure. Mueller read into every stranger the possibility the person was tailing him, and this man got his attention. Mueller stood there thirty feet away on the other side of the street, staring at the motionless figure, who stared back. Mueller couldn’t make out the man’s face, or the shape of his jawline in the hat’s deep shadow.

“Hey, you,” Mueller yelled.

He went to cross the street, but a garbage truck fitted with a snowplow lumbered by in a riot of noise. When the truck passed, Mueller looked for the man, but he was gone.

Excerpted from An Honorable Man by Paul Vidich. Copyright © 2016 by Paul Vidich. Excerpted by permission of Atria/Emily Bestler, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

 

You May See A Stranger
By Paula Whyman

Pogo wants to pay for everyone.  It’s a big night for him, and he’s taking us to the country club. Cheever and his girlfriend are coming, too. Cheever is Pogo’s younger brother. Their father’s name is on a plaque somewhere in the building.  

“On a bar stool,” Pogo joked.

“His name is the same as yours,” Cheever told him.

Pogo has wads of cash in his pocket. I have a small square of paper in my purse. It’s proof of something I don’t quite believe. When the doctor said it, I thought of an incubator and chicks, my body as a holding area, warm, but like everything else, temporary. Pogo will eventually show everyone the cash. I don’t plan to show anyone the paper. This is Pogo’s big night, not mine. One big night at a time seems like a good philosophy.

Cheever and Natasha are already at the bar when we arrive.  Natasha’s glass is full and sweating in her hand. She swirls the yellow straw between her fingers. Cheever orders a gin and tonic for himself. He and Pogo don’t look like brothers, but they look related. They slap each other on the back with friendly hostility, which leads into a wrestler-grip hug held a few beats too long. 

“I’m proud of you,” says Cheever. He tries to mess Pogo’s hair, but Pogo blocks him. Pogo tries to mess Cheever’s hair instead, except he can’t because it’s short and bristly, so it ends up looking like a plush carpet you stroked in the wrong direction. 

Pogo orders drinks for both of us. He’s had two already, before we got here. One before we got in the car, and one he finished on the way to the club, while I drove. His cheeks and his nose are pleasantly red. 

At the bar, I hold up the car key for him to take, and he shows me his pocket. I reach over to slip the key into his khakis, and he grabs my fingers. 

“The other one,” he whispers in my ear. 

I put the key in his other pocket, on the side facing away from Cheever and Natasha, the side without the wad of cash in it. I reach all the way in to stroke him through the lining of his pocket. He isn’t wearing underwear. I can feel the hard curve of him. If I try, I think I can feel his blood rushing. He keeps talking, leaning up against the bar. He leans toward Natasha. While he talks, he touches her with his hand that holds the drink, as if he might rest the glass on her shoulder. I squeeze a little.  He flinches in a way only I would notice, and he has to stop my hand and shift himself. All this he does seamlessly, while holding the drink in the other hand and expounding on the vagaries of the market.  

Pogo has an old Mercedes. His father has one, too. His affection for old things confuses me—some are quality, and some are just old. The idea is to look like they don’t care about money, or even think about it. If you’ve had enough of it for a long enough time, say, generations, you don’t think about it in the same way as other people. But that’s someone else’s money, and whenever Pogo manages to get his own, he wants everyone to know. In my family, what modest funds my parents earned were spent on my sister’s doctors and life-skills counselors, and on the annual summer jaunt to a nearby mountain lodge, where Donna and I counted dead flies on the windowsill and held our noses against the smell of the septic tank. We’d never had the luxury to act like we didn’t worry.

*

On the way to the club, Pogo and I stopped in the parking lot of Broder’s, the gourmet grocery store. We shut off the car engine, but left the radio on. We parked at the far end of the lot, but I could still see people coming and going, pushing their carts, which were smaller and daintier than the carts at a run-of-the-mill store.

I didn’t want to mess up my skirt by hiking it up to my waist, so I took it off. Pogo tilted the passenger seat back as far as it would go, and I straddled him. It was cramped, and I had to hunch my shoulders to avoid hitting the ceiling. At one point, I leaned forward all the way and lay on top of him, and he pushed me up with his pelvis and shouted “giddyap.” He can be a goof that way. I was so high up, I thought later about my naked bottom and the car’s moon roof, and shouldn’t I laugh about it? But I wasn’t exactly thinking about it at the time. A vibration was beginning inside of me, like the background hum of an amplifier. Clapton was singing, Nobody’s lucky till luck comes along/Nobody’s lonely till somebody’s gone. That’s when I came. Pogo already had, a moment before. It was still daylight.

I wasn’t into it at first, doing it outside of Broder’s, or even at all. Pogo could nearly always persuade me; he knew and I knew that I would end up feeling like it before he was done. After that, I drove us to the club. The thrumming in my body continued to reverberate, in seeming rhythm with the rattling diesel engine. I wanted to be still for a while longer and let it finish whatever it was doing to me. 

Pogo said, “‘You, in the cheaper seats, clap your hands; the rest of you just rattle your jewelry.’” This was John Lennon at the Beatles’ Royal command performance, Pogo was fond of reminding me. 

“Am I the queen?” I asked.

“You are the queen of all you survey,” said Pogo.

“The Broder’s parking lot?” I said.

“Your fiefdom.”

“Are you my serf?” I asked.

“I serf no one,” said Pogo. 

“Ugh,” I said.

When we got to the club, I went to the ladies’ room. There were hand towels made of the same fabric you’d make cloth napkins out of, folded in rows on a table near the sink. I wanted to bring one into the stall with me to clean up from preceding events. I couldn’t though, because there was a black woman sitting on a chair in the room, wearing what looked like a nurse’s uniform. She was an attendant.  I wasn’t sure what she was going to do for me, and I didn’t have time to figure it out.  My insides felt shaken up and rearranged, and standing in that dim room with the slightly antiseptic odor tipped the balance toward one arrangement rather than another. I bent over the toilet, my bare knees pressed into the knobby floor, and waited. I threw up, and threw up again. After a while, it stopped on its own, and I sat on the rim in a weakened state, leaning to one side so that I could feel the cool wall tiles. I could fool myself that I was empty, if only for a moment. I had a vision of my body turned inside out, gleaming pink, pristine. So much for that. My knees hurt, as if I’d knelt in pebbles. I sat for as long as I thought I could, awaiting with dread the attendant’s tap on the stall door, or Pogo’s voice outside the ladies’ room calling to me. At that moment, nothing seemed more difficult than leaving the bathroom. 

When I finally emerged from the stall, the attendant handed me a cup of green liquid. I looked at her questioningly, but she kept her face neutral and turned away. I smelled it; it was mouthwash. She probably thought I was drunk, like the other girls the men try to impress, bringing them to the club for drinks before they get them into bed. But Pogo had done things in reverse, as usual. He didn’t have to get me drunk first. He didn’t even have to impress me. 

After I washed my hands, the woman handed me a towel. There was no place for tips, so I figured that wasn’t done. There was a large wicker basket where I finally realized I was supposed to put the used cloth after I dried my hands. I smiled at her and said, “thank you” when I left the bathroom. 

She must be keeping things clean between customers. For some reason, I imagine that she’s never permitted to leave the building; perhaps she can’t even leave the ladies’ room. I wonder if anyone on the outside knows about this, or if it’s a secret the members are expected to keep. She’s the only black person I’ll see at the club tonight.

*

At the club’s bar, I don’t touch my drink right away. I’m not sure how much I want to drink. Same way I was unsure about having sex earlier. I’m resolutely not focusing on the possible reason. Pogo puts the glass in my hand: “Drink the potion,” he says. He’s always paying attention to how much other people drink. I know I’ll oblige. I wonder if Pogo would still give me a drink if he knew. I can’t imagine him suddenly becoming responsible. This is, after all, what I both want and don’t want about him.

Pogo’s ten years older than me. Most men his age are married. He thinks I won’t push him. I play along. I’m only a year out of school, but it’s as if I’m the grown-up. Pogo wants to be a kid forever. 

My doctor asked me, is the father someone you’re serious with? I said yes. Then he’ll do right by you, the doctor said. I laughed. The doctor looked at me sadly then. If that were the case, I wouldn’t be pregnant. Or I suppose when I forgot to take my pill, I could have said no. When Pogo said, just this one time, please? We’d been dating a year, and up to that time I’d been very good about remembering it. I thought one time would be okay. And maybe it would have been. But if I’m honest I’ll also admit it was not just one time.

If we had a boy, first Pogo would teach him how to pee on the side of the road. Then he would teach him persuasion. These are not bad things to know, just as it’s not bad sometimes to let yourself be persuaded.

I stare at the coaster my drink has been sitting on. It’s the most substantial paper coaster I’ve ever seen, as thick as a whole pad of paper. Someone spent a lot of money on those. Worth it? I imagine the talk: “Our golf course is first rate, but you should see our coasters—a well-kept secret.” Along with the black woman in the bathroom. The club’s fleur-de-lis symbol is embossed in gold in the center of the coaster. There’s a wet ring where my drink was. But the water doesn’t get absorbed, it sits on top. The fleur-de-lis reminds me of something. Sex-flower. Flower of lascivious pomposity. I make these phrases in my head; I entertain myself that way. The same symbol is on the hand towels in the bathroom. I almost cleaned myself with the seal of the King of France.

It’s easier to talk to Cheever and Natasha when they’ve had a couple of drinks, as if they discover their personalities. Maybe they think I’m the same. They’re talking about Pogo’s big news, except he doesn’t want to tell the whole story yet. He’s waiting for the moment of utmost drama, so he only drops teasers like, “Do you know how much cash I have in my pocket right now?”

I make a face that tells Cheever and Natasha that I know the answer, and won’t they be impressed? Pogo winks at me, commiserating. We’re like Penn and Teller.

“I hope it’s more than you have in your bank account,” says Cheever. 

Pogo showed me the money when we were in the car. He used the same line with me: “Do you know how much cash I have in my pocket right now?” This was right before we had sex. 

The money was rolled into a thick wad held tight by a rubber band. “I thought you were just happy to see me,” I said. “How much is that?”

“Six thousand right here,” he said, squeezing it in his fist. “The rest is being held at the firm. Earnest money. The importance of being earnest.”

“Are you supposed to have all that?”

“It’s mine, all mine,” he laughed maniacally and sipped his drink, which was in a real glass he’d brought from home. He’s the only person I’ve ever seen do that, bring a drink in an open glass in a car that isn’t a limo. But I never saw Pogo or any of his friends without a drink, a wisecrack, or a woman. They were not-quite Southerners in the not-quite South, pretend gentility and bad behavior coexisting without any apparent discomfort, like Pogo’s dress-code-correct pressed khakis with no boxers underneath.

“This is chump change,” he said. “After the sale, I get more. A lot more.” He unfurled the wad and started peeling off bills. There were fifties and hundreds. His pants were on, but my skirt was already off. I was stretched out next to him, reclining as best I could in the driver’s seat, the steering wheel preventing much range of motion. He laid one bill after another side to side, flat on my thighs, all the way to my knees. I stayed very still. Then, he lifted my blouse, and tried to put bills on my stomach, going up to my breasts, but my stomach was too fat, and only one of the bills would stay, the one covering my belly button. 

“Pizza,” said Pogo, smacking my stomach a little too hard.

“Look who’s talking,” I said. He was giving me an opening, but I was waiting for the right moment, too, and this wasn’t it. I thought of what I would do. And I thought, for the thousandth time, of what he would do. Would he look at that inky print-out, which resembled nothing more than a galactic cloud, an obscured thumbprint, his and mine together, and would he, like always, say just the right, wrong thing? I thought of taking that square of paper with my future printed on it and placing it over his crotch and saying, ‘Here. How much is this worth?’

“I thought you said I was cute,” he pouted, the insult to me already forgotten.

“The Pillsbury dough boy is adorable,” I said. Pogo had a round face, and he was flabby in the middle, but tall enough that he came off as sturdy and strong.  Would his baby have his baby face? His cheek was smooth to the touch. I imagined a tiny hand reaching out to it. I felt something tighten inside me. When I was a kid, what did I imagine about having a baby? Why do I only remember playing with dolls that looked like little adults? What would Pogo do? How could I know him for this long and not know the answer to that?

“Nya-nya ‘doughboy’ nya-nya. Very funny. You’re not as funny as me,” he said. “I’m the funniest of all.”

“You’re the King of Comedy,” I said. “Throw some more money at me, and I promise I’ll say whatever you want to hear.”  

“I’m deeply, deeply wounded by your sarcasm,” Pogo said sarcastically. He attempted to put a fifty over my mouth. I breathed out through my nose and the bill fluttered down to land on the floor mat. He snatched it up. 

“Beautiful money,” he said. “I’ve mistreated you.” He stroked it and reinserted it in the stack he held. He collected the bills from my thighs, along with the others that had landed on the floor of the car, and folded the wad back into his pocket. He leaned over the gearshift and kissed me. Slowly, he kissed all of the places where the money had been. When we were having sex, his pants were pushed down around his knees, and I could feel the bulging cash rub against my ankle.

 

Excerpted from You May See a Stranger by Paula Whyman. Copyright © 2016 by Paula Whyman. Excerpted by permission of TriQuarterly Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Rust Belt Boy: Stories of an American Childhood
By Paul Hertneky

The Prurient Power of Pierogi

In a place averse to looking back, cultural traditions in Ambridge emerged through religion, song, dance, and food. Mostly food, though, because every day when it hit the table it reminded us of our origins.

Housewives in the 1960s experimented with modern food, but they fell back on what they learned from their mothers. And the kitchens in church basements and parochial schools turned out some of the best Old Country cooking. For me, the melding of food and religion came together on meatless Fridays.

Sitting at a kitchen table my father had built, I picked up my bowl to finish the sweet brown milk left behind by the Cocoa Krispies, letting myself go cross-eyed, pretending I didn’t hear my mother click her tongue at my slurping. I stood up and set the bowl in the sink while checking the kitchen counter for my lunch box, and not seeing it. Oh, wow, it’s Friday, I thought when it hit me—no packed lunch today.

My father sat quietly, working his daily crossword, doodling profiles of beautiful women in the margins, his usual morning meditation.

“Dad, could I have some money for pirohi?” Not pierogi, which is what Poles and Croatians called the handmade, stuffed dumplings, served swimming in butter and onions. We Czechs and Slovaks had our own word.

Even though Milt would happily pay for my lunch, he insisted that I ask, as part of a larger lesson about money. “If you can’t ask for it, maybe you don’t need it,” he would say, explaining that when he went to the credit union or the bank for a loan, he had to ask; they didn’t just give it to him.

He smiled and dug into his front pocket, coming up with a fistful of change.

“How much?”

“Thirty-five cents.” Enough to feed a nine year-old.

He held out a calloused hand and reminded me to take enough for milk. “Sixty-five for me,” Mark said as he swaggered in. He was three years older. My father whistled low in mock-disbelief and snapped each coin on the Formica table one at a time. Betty jerked away from the counter where she had been buttering toast, annoyed by the snapping of the coins. Mark kissed her and she handed him a glass of grape juice. He downed it, grabbed the change and two slices of toast.

Watching quietly behind his empty bowl, Chris, who was just finishing first grade, looked up at Mark with wide eyes and announced, “Pirohi today!” Mark swallowed and said “Well, it is Friday, doofus.” With that, Betty, known for her prickly morning moods, popped Mark behind the right ear. He shook it off, and after a hurried round of kisses, we headed out the back door on a typical Friday morning, going off to school with more freedom than on the other days of the week. None of the Catholic schools provided everyday lunches, but their churches raised money with pirohi, or pierogi, or pirozhki. On Friday, without lunchboxes or bags, I had a free hand with which to gesture and swat, pick up pebbles and throw them at street signs, on our way to the bus stop.

Streets in the neighborhood ran like creeks to a river that was the main road. Out of the tiny households came kids with an array of European surnames: Marcia Sokil, with her fine and even Ukrainian features, would get off the bus at Sts. Peter and Paul; Dave Duplaga, a Pole, would say goodbye in front of St. Stanislaus, Bobby Cipriani at St. Veronica’s.

Swaying like a drunk around the corner, the bus skidded onto the gravel shoulder. It was a heap, an eyesore even in its industrial surroundings. Tosta’s Bus Company served the parochial schools, hauling their students in broken-down buses of two designs: the salvaged city bus, and the retired tour coach. The city buses, with fare boxes, shiny handrails, outdated billboards and cables for requesting a stop, were like rolling funhouses. In contrast, the coaches were dark and quiet, with overhead luggage racks and high, reclining seats that were threadbare and torn.

All the buses had rusty floorboards with holes big enough to see the road, but too small to lose a foot through, and gearboxes that just caught. The drivers, all mechanics, wore greasy jumpsuits and smelled like garlic, motor oil, and sweat. One smoked a pipe while he drove, stuffed with what could only have been plain old oak leaves.

“Oh…God…no,” I groaned when the door swung open and smoke rushed out like a late commuter. I saw the goofy smile of the green immigrant, holding the door lever with the same hand that held his goosenecked pipe, its mouthpiece crushed from his few remaining molars.

Inside, a cloud hung over the luggage rack. The usual choke of moldy seats and exhaust fumes that seeped up through the floor was overwhelmed by the smoldering trash in the driver’s pipe. We made gagging sounds and laughed, but the driver only watched us and smiled with his pipe in his teeth. Most days I prayed for the bus to break down. My hopes sprang from the frequency with which it happened—first a loud clunk, then a whimper from below, the driver cussing and wrestling the rig onto a lawn or a sidewalk. They never called for help, preferring to slide their toolboxes stored under their seat and fix it themselves.

On Fridays, though, my brothers and I wanted a smooth ride. By the time the bus wheeled to the curb in front of Divine Redeemer, I noticed Chris’s vacant stare and gaping mouth. The poor little aromatically sensitive guy, who ran from the house to escape offensive cooking odors, had turned khaki. I yanked our bookbags from the luggage rack and escorted Chris down the aisle and stairs. On the sidewalk, he doubled over and gulped the fresher air while I stood behind him, throwing my head back and inhaling like a hound in a stiff breeze. That’s when I caught it. The scent of Friday shot to my salivary glands. When two nuns pushed open the churches’ oak doors, even the latent incense gave way to the embrace of butter and onions.

During Mass, the promise and seduction became unbearable. My stomach clawed toward its quarry while I knelt through the long Latin consecration. I stared at the ornamental sacristy and my eyes glossed over, seeing Jesus feeding hordes of followers by multiplying pirohi instead of loaves and fishes. Or my gaze landed on the soft white mound of Monica Halicek’s top vertebra. How its contours transported me, how its roundness resembled a tender potato pirohi.

Rising for the Our Father, I examined my conscience for any transgressions that might keep me from momentarily stemming my cravings with the appetizer that was communion. The unleavened wafer seemed a poor substitute for the flesh it presumed to replace. A better choice, I thought, would have been a slice of pepperoni.

Friday mornings dragged. Through religion, geography, and history lessons, I learned only forbearance. Even the nuns admitted their cravings and their secrets for coping: muttering mantras like “Jesus, have mercy on me”—ejaculations, they called them (setting up real teenage confusion down the road)—until the moments of weakness passed.

Billy Evans poked me in the back while Sister Tomasina answered a knock at the door. “How many you gettin’?” he asked.

“A half dozen,” I whispered out of the corner of my mouth, careful not to turn around.

“I’m gettin’ a whole dozen.” Of course you are; you’re fat.

When noon arrived, Sister Tomasina opened the door and the full force of cooking odors washed over us. She cuffed her sleeves and folded her thick, hairy forearms as she stood in the doorway and watched the younger kids file toward the basement. I squirmed in my seat, fishing out the coins and slapping them on my desk for a final count. Satisfied, I cupped my hand at the edge of the desk and slid the coins into it, except for the nickel that bounced off my thumb and fell to the tile floor, found its edge and rolled all the way to the back wall, where it disappeared between a row of bookbags.

Billy noticed and we were both tracking the nickel when Sister Tomasina must have signaled the class to rise and form a queue. Caught by surprise, I spun and stood, tipping over my chair. While righting it, I turned to see the angry nun hustling toward me. Her black robes billowed like a crow descending on roadkill. She took me by the ear and dragged me, sidestepping, to face the blackboard two inches away. When I dared to look sideways, I saw Billy being flung ear-first to my side.

I closed my eyes and memorized the color of the bookbags the nickel had rolled between: red and powder blue. But I doubted I’d have a chance to retrieve it. I might end up staying at the blackboard throughout lunch. Sister Tomasina’s heart had long ago been removed, we theorized, frozen and broken into particles that, when added to torpedoes, made them more deadly. Maybe she’d let us go later, when the entire school had eaten the best pirohi varieties. Billy seethed. I would pay for this on the playground.

As our classmates marched out, the sweet aroma intensified and God’s own forgiving breath must have swept in and subdued the nun. She ordered us to catch up with the others, but before we escaped she drew a four-foot pointer from the folds of her apron and sliced the air behind us, cracking both of our buttocks simultaneously.

The sting made us hop. But we were giddy as we started down the stairs and Billy elbowed me hard enough to knock me into the rail. That was it; retribution delivered. He didn’t hold grudges. Besides, we were dropping into the most overwhelming sensual pleasure either of us would know until puberty, with a narrow escape behind us.

The pupils, as we were called, filed into a bright multipurpose room filled with long tables, folding chairs, and noisy pirohi hogs. This feast was open to the public, and local workers on their lunch breaks sat along the west wall. Kids filled half of the tables in the vast middle, and along the east wall, facing the room, sat a brigade of silver-haired grandmothers. They carefully spooned fillings—mashed potato, sauerkraut, cottage cheese, and lekvar, a prune preserve—into the disks of dough they cradled in their floury hands. They folded the edges together and pinched the semicircular dumplings into shape.

The pinchers would seldom rise. Other volunteers rolled out the dough and cut it into circles with teacups, or mixed fillings and delivered them to the pinchers in heaping bowls, then returned to harvest the finished pirohi.

Pinching and chatting in Slovak or Czech to the friends who flanked her, my grandmother, Anna Rosol, found my face and smiled, flashing perfect false teeth. I broke free of my classmates, now dazed in pirohi nirvana, and scrambled behind the pinchers—“Hi, Mrs. Hovanec, Mrs. Yaniga, Mrs. Duda, Mrs. Sinchak, Mrs. Tabachka”—until I reached my grandmother’s strong arms and soft cotton apron. She kissed me and hugged me hard, pressing her wrists into my back. Her hands, kept chaste for touching food, flew away from me. She was careful like that.

By now, Billy had reached the serving line and I had to hurry. I patted the coins in my pocket and sorely missed that nickel. I suppose I could have asked my grandmother for one, but I knew she was too poor. If she were to give it to me, she’d probably walk home instead of taking the bus. Still, the shortfall forced me to reconfigure my usual order, maybe cutting out the lekvar, its mellow sweetness made sophisticated when it met salt, pepper, butter, and onions. I hated quandaries such as these.

Just as I was about to pick up a plate, a hunchbacked woman in a dark print dress emerged from the kitchen lugging a giant bowl of snowy cottage cheese. She saw me at once, cried my name, and set the bowl down. She wiped her hands and grabbed my face, mashing a kiss on my lips before pushing me away and tugging at the ear still tender from my trip to the blackboard. Like a magician, she let go and presented me with a shiny quarter in the palm of her hand.

Grandma Hertneky, an osteoporotic angel, always greeted me in public with a gangway flourish—even though I saw her nearly every day. Her gypsy drama, in greeting, feeding, scolding, mourning, or scaring, never subsided. She counterposed Grandma Rosol, whose serene demeanor shrouded her in ethereal gauze.

Now I was flush. I knew all the ladies wielding spoons, too, and one scooped four glistening potato pirohis onto my plate. Then I boldly ordered two kraut to go with my usual two lekvar, forcing me to hold the plate with both hands. Searching for a seat, I saw Chris, nose-down, all business. I also spotted Mark, who had just cruised in with the upperclassmen and stood on his tiptoes to assess my plate, as if he might cross the room and steal it. He winked at me.

With the long-awaited aroma buttering my face, I found Billy and sat, just before my knees were about to buckle from excitement. I freed my fork from its napkin wrapper, grabbed the salt and pepper, checked the caps for cruel jokes, and seasoned my little treasures. With my fork, I cut the firm potato pillow in half, exposing the fine filling placed there by ancient hands, refined through generations of argument, fulfilled by sunlight, pitchforks, and cauldrons of boiling water. I flipped its gaping side down in a pool of butter and smeared it across the plate.

The first bite made me close my eyes. The multipurpose room fell silent and every cavity in my head absorbed a humble gift composed of elements that sang secret lyrics to notes along an archetypal scale, a harmony to my subconscious. In my pirohi rapture I could be lost and found, week after week, even when I reached the age when ardent kisses tried to surpass it, and never really could.

Excerpt from Rust Belt Boy, Stories of an American Childhood by Paul Hertneky. © 2016 Paul Hertneky. Published by Bauhan Publishing, Peterborough, New Hampshire. Used by permission.

5 Over 50: 2016

by

Staff

10.12.16

Each year a lot of attention is paid to “new and emerging” authors under a certain age. Every fall the National Book Foundation honors a group of authors through its 5 Under 35 program, designed to introduce “the next generation” of fiction writers. And in the spring the New York Public Library offers its ten-thousand-dollar Young Lions Fiction Award to a writer age thirty-five or younger. Yale University Press only recently lifted the age restriction for the legendary Yale Series of Younger Poets, which for nearly a century stipulated that the publication award was open only to poets under forty. Every ten years the London-based literary magazine Granta names the twenty writers it considers the Best of Young British Novelists, all of them under forty. The New Yorker made waves back in 1999 with its first 20 Under 40 list—a popular feature the magazine repeated in 2010—anointing authors such as Michael Chabon, Junot Díaz, Jhumpa Lahiri, Sherman Alexie, Edwidge Danticat, and George Saunders as “standouts in the diverse and expansive panorama of contemporary fiction,” as the New Yorker’s fiction editor Deborah Treisman put it. BuzzFeed got in on that action with a feature in 2014, “20 Under 40 Debut Writers You Need to Be Reading,” that included the line: “Out with the old, in with the debut.”

While there is something undeniably exciting about news of the next big book by an undiscovered talent, we would like to remind writers and readers that new does not necessarily mean young, no matter how broadly that qualifier is defined. And while popular culture tends to favor youth, there is something equally exciting about the work of those authors who have lived more than half a century—some pursuing alternative careers, others raising families; all of them taking their time, either by choice or by necessity, and collecting valuable life experience that undoubtedly informs and inspires their writing—before publishing a book.

Here, in their own words, we present five authors over the age of fifty whose debut books were published in the past year.

Know the Mother (Wayne State University Press, March) by Desiree Cooper
Her, Infinite (New Issues Poetry & Prose, March) by Sawnie Morris
An Honorable Man (Emily Bestler Books, April) by Paul Vidich
You May See A Stranger (TriQuarterly Books, May) by Paula Whyman
Rust Belt Boy: Stories of an American Childhood (Bauhan Publishing, May) by Paul Hertneky

Desiree Cooper

Age: 56
Residence: Detroit, Michigan
Book: Know the Mother, a collection of meditative stories exploring the complex archetype of the mother in all of her incarnations.
Publisher: Wayne State University Press (March)
Agent: None

Twenty years ago I was deep in the throes of raising two elementary-schoolers and struggling to keep apace with the demands of motherhood, wifehood, and personhood. I had a career as a newspaper columnist, which I accomplished between drop-offs and pickups, sometimes driving three hours one way to deliver kids to tutors or games or piano lessons. 

Once a year I landed on the shores of a poetry residency where I was a board member (not an actual poet), feeling like a bedraggled refugee. It was there, in the late 1990s, that I penned a poem titled “Know the Mother.” It was a narrative poem about a daughter sitting by her mother’s deathbed, realizing that she will never know who her mother really was. I remember thinking, even then, “If I ever have a book, that will be the title.”

In March 2016, five days before my fifty-sixth birthday, I stood in front of a packed Detroit art gallery for the launch of my first book, a collection of flash fiction titled Know the Mother. By then I was a grandmother, a Kresge Artist Fellow, and a survivor of what could have been a fatal encounter with a semitruck only months before. 

All I could think was, “I can’t believe I lived to see this moment.”

Since the age of four, I have wanted only to write stories. But as part of the first generation after the civil rights movement and the oldest child of middle-class strivers, I quickly learned to think of writing as a hobby, not a “real job.” The currents of life sent me on a traditional path to college, law school, a career in journalism, marriage, and family. Through it all, I was a mare champing at the muse. I wrote for myself, on the side, in writing groups, at retreats. I found a community of kitchen-table writers who helped shape my voice. Frustrated at the stingy moments left for me to write, I often very nearly stopped, but I couldn’t stay away for long. Somehow I managed to believe in myself as a creative writer with little outward validation. 

Then, one day while I was lurking at a writing event, M. L. Liebler, one of Detroit’s well-known authors and indefatigable writing mentors, shouted “Send me your book!” when he saw me in the parking lot. My heart stopped and I looked around, wondering who he was addressing. He had heard me read at an event and assumed I had more. I had been outed.

Liebler liked my work and handed it to Wayne State University Press. When the gifted editors at the press and the brilliant publicist Kima Jones both said that they would get behind my manuscript, I was awash in disbelief. Maybe because, deep down, I had resigned myself to being a secret writer forever.

I would be lying to myself if I didn’t admit that the path to my first book was as lucky as it was labored. But there were forces that prepared me to step through the publishing door when it miraculously opened late in life. My career as a newspaper columnist gave me the muscle for compressed storytelling, a skill that shaped my ability to write flash fiction. I never stopped sharing my writing with other writers and readers. They became my community MFA program, teaching me what works and what doesn’t, forcing me to produce, encouraging me to stretch. 

My life as a mother gave me fodder, empathy, and insight into the human condition. It taught me patience that I never knew I could muster, and a concrete understanding that, while time often feels like a foe, it can be a friend as well. The women in my collection are informed by my own experiences—and those of the women I have met along the way. They are born out of a lifetime of living and observing how racism and sexism profoundly affect our intimate lives. 

When I was in my thirties I dreamed of writing a book called Know the Mother. But it wasn’t until I was fifty that I knew for sure who she really was. 

 

(Photo credit: Justin Milhouse)

Sawnie Morris

Age: 61
Residence: Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico
Book: Her, Infinite, a collection of poems that 2015 New Issues Poetry Prize judge Major Jackson calls “a ceremony of tantalizing music.”
Publisher: New Issues Poetry & Prose (March)
Agent: None

In the late 1980s, my husband and I founded and began working for what became a highly accomplished environmental-advocacy organization. Although the experiences expressed in Her, Infinite were written as that life was being lived, the seed poem did not arrive until 2007. The book gathered to its purpose poems written as much as fourteen years prior and five years after its own inception. Beginning in 2010, I spent five years submitting my manuscript to a wide range of presses and contests; Her, Infinite received recognition as a finalist fifteen times before being selected by Major Jackson for the New Issues Poetry Prize. The road to publication via contests was at times a grueling one, but I have no regrets. 

A poem is not simply words on a page but a way of touching the stars and having the stars that have fallen into the sea touch us. Our lives are poems. Everything arrives and passes away as it should, and we don’t know the ending—which is the moment the entire poem, its meaning and music, is revealed—until the last line is written, even though it has perhaps existed in the eternal now all along. If we are called to write—and love is the true measure of any calling—then it is joyful duty, even in struggle.

In the fall of 2014 I woke from a dream knowing Her, Infinite was finally going to enter the world. I was floating in the sea and the manuscript had become part of that great benevolence. I felt a gentle yet profound euphoria that had little to do with publication and more to do with connection and a sense of utter acceptance. I woke crying and with the understanding that something huge was transpiring in my life. 

On May 4, 2015, my beloved husband, an elegant and articulate abstract expressionist painter, received an advanced cancer diagnosis. Eight days later, in the late afternoon, post-surgery, as I was seated at the foot of his bed rubbing his feet, my cell phone rang. Her, Infinite had found a home. It would be another day before a faint happiness would appear to me in the form of a tiny asterisk moving whimsically around the hospital room while my husband recovered. It would be a year before true happiness, containing as it does a calm center, took hold in my body and I could feel both gratitude and awe for the mysterious synchronicity of those events—the cancer removed, the phone call from the press—arriving together, within the same hour. And even longer to appreciate the fact that the judge had taken an extra week to make his decision. The same week in which we were absorbing our terrifying news and plotting how to face, and with any luck, defeat it. 

In a world where such things happen, how can we doubt the auspices of timing, doubt ourselves, or allow anyone else to doubt us due to age and its conspirator, time? Age is only as meaningful as what we have managed to learn and absorb, in our minds, in our bodies. We are here now. Now is the moment to put pen to paper, fingertip to key—to learn and practice our craft, to open ourselves to the music arriving from outside as well as rising from within us, in search of a welcoming. 

Paul Vidich

Age: 66
Residence: New York City
Book: An Honorable Man, a Cold War spy thriller set in 1950s Washington, D.C.
Publisher: Emily Bestler Books (April)
Agent: Will Roberts

My path to writing An Honorable Man was long and winding. I had written two atrocious novels by the time I was twenty-seven, at which point I learned I was to be a father. At the time I didn’t believe I could be a successful writer, and certainly not one who could contribute to meeting a family’s financial needs, so I pursued my other, more conventional, ambition and got an MBA. I also promised myself that I’d quit business when we were financially secure and take up full-time writing again. In 2006, at the age of fifty-six, I didn’t renew my contract at Time Warner, where I had worked in the AOL and Warner Music Group divisions for eighteen years, which surprised many of my colleagues. I enjoyed my long business career, and I was good at it, but I always had the calling to write, and I  supported literary organizations such as Poets & Writers, whose board I had joined. I enrolled in the new MFA program at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, and began the workshopping and reading needed to develop the tools of written expression. When I started to write more seriously I was able to look back at a life—my life. I had lived a lot, and the distance of time gave me perspective. There was a world to write about that I did not have access to at twenty-seven.

In 2012 I received a letter from a literary agent who’d read a story of mine that had recently won an award. He liked the story, but he didn’t represent collections. Did I have a novel? I looked at my wife. “I guess I should write a novel,” I said. But which one? There was an abiding family tragedy that sat unsettled in my mind for years: My uncle worked for the CIA in 1953 and his unsolved murder remained a devastating family loss. I finished the first draft in forty-five days, and, of course, many drafts followed.

 The completed manuscript benefitted from critiques by six fellow Rutgers MFA alumni. (We still meet regularly and comment on each other’s work.) I sent the finished manuscript to four agents who represented authors whose work was similar to my own—espionage novels with a literary register. Olen Steinhauer is one such author who is represented by the Gernert Company. David Gernert liked the book but wanted some changes and introduced me to his young associate, Will Roberts, who handled the novel’s auction. I was fortunate to land with Emily Bestler of Emily Bestler Books, an imprint at Simon & Schuster.   

My advice to people coming to writing and publishing later in life: You have to want to write, and I mean really want it. You have to be disciplined about the work. You may have a story, but the writer needs to master the techniques of telling that story. And it is important not to be discouraged by age. You have to inoculate yourself from the perception, however true, that the world only seems to recognize youth and ignores the contributions of later-aged newcomers.

You also need self-confidence. One day, feeling down, I put together a list of authors who had debuted later in life. Raymond Chandler wrote The Big Sleep, his first book, at fifty-one; Julia Glass wrote her first novel, Three Junes, when she was forty-six; and so on. Compiling this list stoked my confidence. If they could do it, then so could I. 

Oh, and one other thing: I used to look at the many thousands of books published each year and say, “It can’t be that hard.” I was wrong. It is, in fact, hard work—but it’s worth it. 

 

(Photo credit: Bekka Palmer)

Paula Whyman

Age: 51
Residence: Bethesda, Maryland
Book: You May See a Stranger, a collection of funny, linked stories that illuminate the life of protagonist Miranda Weber and her strange, unsettling times.
Publisher: TriQuarterly Books (May)
Agent: Daniel Menaker

There’s a scene in my book where an antsy crackhead is waiting for a car’s cigarette lighter to heat up. “Why’s it taking so #%$&* long?” he asks. The car’s driver, who is not a crackhead, replies, “It takes that long.” 

I don’t have a satisfying answer to explain why it took so long to publish my first book of fiction. I’ve been making up stories since I learned how to talk, but I knew I would find no classified ads for “fiction writer” when I was looking for a job. I worked as a bar-back, a temp, and an editor, and many things in between, before returning to school for my MFA at American University. My first short story was published the week my first child was born. I was already over thirty by then, too old to be an ingenue, even though the story appeared in an anthology called Virgin Fiction. I went on to write two novel drafts and made false starts on a couple more. I wrote a lot of stories—some good, some terrible. Meanwhile, there were frustrations, uncertainties, and even tragedies.

It was hard to dedicate myself to writing while I was deeply engaged as a parent, especially when my kids were young. I lost touch with many of the writers I’d met in grad school; I was no longer part of a writing community. But my kids made me a better writer—they taught me empathy. And once they were old enough for me to be away, I began attending residencies and conferences. It turned out to be a good thing for me and for them. They take pride in my achievements, and I’ve given them a real-life demonstration of persistence and dedication and passion for one’s work. I’ll never forget when one of my kids excitedly told his English teacher that his mom was going to Yaddo, the same place the poet whose work he was studying, Langston Hughes, had gone to write.

The biggest advance in my work came when I finally stopped telling myself my first book had to be a novel. I think of it as the triumph of the irrational plan. I decided to allow myself to write the stories I wanted to write. I began writing stories that felt dangerous to me; I allowed the characters to go places I didn’t want to go. 

Like all writers, I’ve weathered a lot of rejection. I’ve always been persistent, and optimistic enough that I responded to the least encouragement. That encouragement, coming from people whose judgment I trust, has been key. 

And then there is serendipity. I met my agent, Daniel Menaker, when I took his humor workshop at the Key West Literary Seminar more than three years ago. I asked him for advice on my fiction, and to my surprise, he offered to represent me. I hadn’t written the book yet. 

I found my publisher—or he found me—when I was awarded a scholarship to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. My book was making the rounds and getting (nice) rejections from big houses when my scholar bio was posted on the Sewanee website. Mike Levine at TriQuarterly saw it and requested my manuscript. A few weeks later, he told me he wanted to publish the collection. The book came out this past May.

Do I wish all of this had happened more quickly? Sure. But the truth is, I could not have written this book when I was thirty. The more life experience I gained, the more perspective I could bring to the work. Along the way, I became better at choosing among my ideas and understanding how to make them work.

My first child turned eighteen shortly after my book came out. He starts college this fall. On my publication day, he told me, “I feel like I grew up watching you write. Now your book is ready to go out into the world, and so am I.” 

It can take this long. Are you too old? Is it too late? Nonsense. Imagination has no expiration date. 

 

(Photo credit: Jo Eldredge Morrissey)
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Paul Hertneky

Age: 61
Residence: Hancock, New Hampshire
Book: Rust Belt Boy: Stories of an American Childhood, a collection of essays about the immigrant experience, set in Pittsburgh and the author’s hometown of Ambridge, Pennsylvania. 
Publisher: Bauhan Publishing (May)
Agent: None

First, an admission: I did not grow up with a love of books, but with a love of reading. Newspapers became a habit, magazines a marvel, poems a playground. Bound mysteries and biographies from the library captivated me, but inspiration came from the once-literary pages of Esquire and the essays of Montaigne. 

I had never imagined myself a writer, much less the author of a cohesive volume of prose. Making my living through copywriting and journalism, I became friends with authors at a time when clear paths led to publishing books. Years of work went into each book, and the heartache of seeing them on remainder tables made the enterprise seem too Sisyphean for me. 

My stories and essays came and went on the wings of ephemera and airwaves, their footprints left in the tiny lines of the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature, then a library database. But no Internet. Not even the illusion of permanence, much less posterity. 

I cared more about my reputation among editors than my identity as a writer. I cared about my sentences, stories, sources, and serving readers and listeners. I satisfied my artful side by publishing an essay, or performing one on public radio. 

And then one day I interviewed a man over lunch who ordered steamed milk with honey. His taste for this biblical concoction tied in to the subject, forming a metaphor that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. I set out to write a series of essays and stories that, ten years later, became Rust Belt Boy: Stories of an American Childhood. 

My early manuscripts made little impression on the young intellectuals staffing the front lines at agencies and literary presses. Years of relentless rejection followed, but I continued to believe in my stories and in the invisible communities and characters they portrayed. I reformulated the book countless times, responding to advice from agents and publishers, and kept pitching. 

Revision became my solace, my drug of choice, the only activity that made me feel better. I cut and clarified, expanded and recast. A great friend, the novelist Eugenia Kim, believed in my book from the beginning and insisted that I continue, editing draft after draft for me, questioning and challenging me. 

You see, I had dedicated myself to a seemingly foolish task. Most of my published work had been tailored to narrowly defined readers and audiences. I wanted this book to engage literary readers while also captivating working stiffs, many of whom read less than one book a year. Reaching that broad spectrum with respect for a range of sensibilities demanded everything I had learned over twenty-five years of writing for publication.

Howard Mansfield, a friend as well as an author of nine books and a superb editor, had read one of the earliest versions of Rust Belt Boy. He told me how pleased he had been working with Bauhan Publishing, a small press with distribution by the University Press of New England, for his upcoming book. I knew of Bauhan, and I hadn’t thought my book would fit in with their New England–centered list. 

But I also knew that its former managing editor, Jane Eklund, had liked my essays well enough to publish one years earlier in a literary magazine she edited. Soon after I gave her the manuscript, she recommended it for publication by Bauhan.

 Trusting my pitch that my collection carried universal themes for millions of mill-town kids, the Bauhan team produced a beautiful book and has supported it well. With the help of publicist Scott Manning, the book enjoyed a strong launch, required a second printing within weeks, and has drawn considerable attention from media and reviewers. 

My own truth for book writing: I will only write a book that means the world to me, that obsesses me and compels me, as long as it takes, sentence by sentence, to earn the attention of readers, to hold them, and leave them wanting more. 

5 Over 50 Reads 2016

From the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 program to the New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 list, many organizations make a point of recognizing young, gifted authors at the start of their literary careers. In the November/December 2016 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, we feature five debut authors over the age of fifty—Desiree Cooper, Sawnie Morris, Paul Vidich, Paula Whyman, and Paul Hertneky—whose first books came out this past year, and who stand as living proof that it’s never too late to start your literary journey. Here, we feature excerpts from their debut books.

Know the Mother(Wayne State University Press, March) by Desiree Cooper
Her, Infinite (New Issues Poetry & Prose, March) by Sawnie Morris
An Honorable Man (Emily Bestler Books, April) by Paul Vidich
You May See A Stranger (TriQuarterly Books, May) by Paula Whyman
Rust Belt Boy: Stories of an American Childhood (Bauhan Publishing, May) by Paul Hertneky

 

Know the Mother
By Desiree Cooper

The Disappearing Girl

My minivan churns impatiently as I wait in the long queue. Up ahead, it’s easy to spot my daughter in the gaggle of starched, school-crested shirts and navy-blue pants. She’s the only one with brown eyes and skin to match. She’s the only one whose thick, black hair is tamed into stiff braids.

She is standing apart, her eyes scanning the row of cars, a refugee on a hostile shore waiting for an airlift. When she finally sees our car, she shoulders her heavy book bag—too full of academic pressure for a fourth grader—and a smile lands on her face. She is not ashamed to show me the beautiful Wolof gap in her front teeth. She waves desperately, as if otherwise I might miss her, the lone black child in a sea of white.

Finally, she opens the door and jumps into the back seat. “How was your day?” I say brightly, swallowing the stress of having to pick her up from private school every afternoon. She buckles in and opens her daily treat—today it’s a bag of Doritos and bottled tea. No time to get to the store for apples. Bad mom.

She says nothing, but munches quietly and looks out the window. We pass the blond girls yelling things out of car windows like “Call me if you want to go riding!” or “Don’t forget your swimsuit!”

At ten, my daughter wants, more than anything, to be chosen. She has a crush on Henry Frank (the kids call him HankFrank, as if it were one word). My daughter has a chance with HankFrank because he is funny-goofy, already eccentric, probably gay.

I turn off the radio, which I always do when the kids are in the car, just in case something bubbles up from their mysterious lives. Lately, my daughter has become impenetrable. When I hug her, she stiffens. Even though I am her lifeboat, she will not touch me. She is the kind of lonely that cannot be explained, so it becomes someone else’s fault. Mine.

“Did you know that I am invisible?” Her words come in a scratchy little-girl voice, but she is too old for make-believe. She is stating a fact. My heart is a block of ice. I glance at her in the rearview mirror. She keeps eating Doritos vacantly.

Suddenly, I am six. It is 1967 and my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Houston, is so severe, every inch of me wants to please her.

I figure out after the first day that I am smarter than the other kids. The white kids. Every day, I want prove my worth to Mrs. Houston by giving her the right answers. She calls on the other children; I don’t understand why she doesn’t see me. I stretch my hand higher, accent my eagerness with a few “Ooh, oohs,” but still she gazes over my head to the dolt behind me with the ruby curls.

This is not what I had imagined when I’d longed to go to school. I’d dreamed of friends and books and scissors and the sweet smell of paste. I dreamed of chalk scraping on the board and gold stars on my homework. I never dreamed I would disappear.

My daughter finishes her Doritos and crumples the bag loudly. I stop the car in front of the manicured lawn of a stranger. I get out and open my daughter’s door. She tracks me wide-eyed, afraid that she is in trouble. I unlock her seat belt and pull her out of the car. Her classmates peer at us curiously as they drive by in their moms’ SUVs. She doesn’t know it yet, but after today, my daughter will never see them again.

I take her shoulders and gaze into her eyes. I look at her so long that the hard resentment of her spine bends toward me. Her anger softens to tears.

“I can see you,” I say, taking her into my arms.

 

Know the Mother

As I wash my mother’s back, her scent fills my nostrils. Already, she smells like a garden unearthed, a freshly dug grave. I soak the cloth in warm water and witch hazel; she sighs as I swab her shrunken thighs, her shriveled feet.

“Don’t leave me,” I plead beneath my breath. She twitches and my heart leaps—maybe she’s changed her mind and has decided to stay with me a little longer. But for the next three hours, she gives me nothing to hold on to—not one fluttering eyelid, not a wan smile of possibility. She is leaving me so easily, I wonder if her love ever rose above duty.

Two months ago, I was bringing warm sheets up from the dryer in the basement. As I reached the top of the stairs, I could hear Mother singing. I dashed around the corner, half expecting to see her remaking her bed, lifting the mattress to miter the corners.

But when I reached her room, nothing had changed. Her hair was still a thin layer of down. Her cheeks were still sallow. Her shoulder blades jutted beneath the summer blanket as if she were hiding her favorite book beneath the covers. Yet somehow as she slept, she was a young woman again, singing.

At her bedside, I doze without resting. I dream that my mother is dressed in a black taffeta gown. Her cheeks are rouged with stage makeup, her eyes shimmering. On cue, she makes her way to the curtain. I call her name three times, but nothing I say can make her look back.
 

Excerpted from Know the Mother by Desiree Cooper. Copyright © 2016 by Desiree Cooper. Excerpted by permission of Wayne State University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Her, Infinite
By Sawnie Morris

Sunlight Hardens on the Bed

In the next room,
handmade cabinets open, shut. A crashing sound
and the man’s voice calls out glass. Scalene, obtuse,
with a generous curve. Another woman’s voice
from the speaker-phone enters. They are stringed instruments,
so events happen quickly. The spatula scrapes against
the body of the skillet. The brain rewires itself
tonographically, as though just being someplace warmer
could change the music. Fire at will, he says,
when they return to the house on the mesa
in a sky like ice water, stars tinkling. Shards
reminiscent of sails, and he carries the broken
in a box alongside the kitchen island and out
the back door, its window tracked by drippings
summer oil left. Nothing to protect either of them
from the heart’s investment. Divested of all else,
what she learns will be survival
without guilt. What he learns will be startled
dependence on   the  not   mapped .
 

Inland See (II)
re: “Deepwater Horizon” catastrophic oil spill, June 2010 

Grandmothers scoop up a light-net,
haul pelican (in the spirit world) like fish—
and fish. Or net the sludge,
thick ooze, and how-to
staunch a puncture. (Sometimes
we must protect ourselves, we said of television,
internet.) Our fingers
over dinner, splay—were we? Eating a bird,
we become it.
 

And Afterward, to Eat Oranges 

—to dust off the dark spots of oil
and clean my face. 

A draft, sinewy and luminous
wraps across our vision.
In a haven of smoke, cars throttled past.
¡Qué silencio en las iglesias! Someone
on a phonograph plays the cymbals, tapping them lightly
as in a dream when you kiss me awake.

The clamoring of spirits springs up inside the piano.
What are we waiting for, those of us who hear?
Already a waif with torn clothes and a finger,
I want you like a tight fit, like a swallow under eaves.
 

A Sand Trail w/ Stone Walls & Configurations 

For a while I am walking along a path
next to a river. A sand trail
w/ stone walls & configurations.
I dream more prosaically at night
and for a while I am aware she is following.
Then she is no longer a poet, but a lion.

The house is bright and quiet when I wake,
and I hear water draining from the bath.
Some days I am a morning bedside chatterbox.
Others I am on my way south to see the
great whales. That’s the circumstance
in which she is at her best and most natural.

In a house made of wood, the main task
is making collages—she has a box-full,
though I think to myself, no thanks,
this life is not the circus for me.

At one point I go for a walk near the ocean.
At the stone dock a speed boat races past
and crashes into what is called a jetty.
I think surely there will be injuries and admit

there are moments I envy the alcoholics,
the way they do that disappearing act
into something else. A man shoots
a very old very loud gun in every
direction. It is a way of keeping time,
the equivalent of church bells.

She was so handsome I felt completely,
almost completely unworthy. And when she went
into the sand dunes and I heard a cry,
I was afraid. I raced to find her, but no
need to be distraught. She was content,
leaning against a large stone beside the river,
complicated, in the shade.
 

Excerpted from Her, Infinite by Sawnie Morris. Copyright © 2016 by Sawnie Morris. Excerpted by permission of New Issues Poetry & Prose. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

An Honorable Man
By Paul Vidich 

WASHINGTON, D.C., 1953

Mueller stood at the apartment’s third-floor window and said to the FBI agent, “It’s been too long. He won’t show.” He ground his cigarette into the overflowing ash tray. “We’re wasting our time.”

“He’ll come. He can’t resist the bait.”

Mueller looked across the icy street at the dilapidated apartment building separated from the sidewalk by a wrought iron fence. Bars protected first-floor windows. There was no activity and there hadn’t been since he’d arrived. A streetlamp at the corner cast its amber glow up the block, but it didn’t reach the stoop. An unmarked car stood at Twelfth Street NE and Lincoln Park, and a black Buick was around the corner, in the alley, out of sight, but Mueller had seen it on his way over. Further up the block, an agent waited in the dimly lit phone booth, self-conscious with his newspaper.

“He’s been scared off.”

“He has no reason to believe we’re here.”

“He doesn’t need a reason. It’s instinct. Even an amateur would wonder why that man’s been in the phone booth an hour. For you it’s a job.” Mueller dropped the curtain. “It’s his life. He knows.”

Mueller glanced at his watch. “When do you call it quits?”

“There’s time. We spotted her making the drop at five. She’s Chernov’s wife. She went in the lobby with the package. She came out without it. He’ll come.”

“You’re sure it was her?” Mueller asked.

He waited for FBI agent Walker to respond. Mueller thought Walker flamboyant, enjoying his status as agent-in-charge, eager to hunt. He dressed the part: dark hair combed straight back, polished shoes, double-breasted suit, and thin moustache like a Hollywood leading man. Through the window street sounds spilled into the darkened apartment—a car’s honk, a woman’s anger. The agent raised opera glasses and scanned the street and then shifted his attention to the edge of Lincoln Park. Automobiles cruised single men sitting alone on wood benches. A giant mound of dirty snow from the weekend storm buried parked cars.

“We know it was her,” Walker said in his drawl. “We have surveillance. Two cars. She left the Soviet embassy, took a taxi to the residence, and walked here with the package. It’s still inside.”

Mueller waited. He looked at his watch again, and then without thinking, he did it again. Waiting was the hardest part. He moved to the center of the room. There was the rank smell of cigarettes in the small apartment, half-drunk coffee cups, and the wilted remains of a take-out dinner. All waiting did was give him time to be irritated. He took a tennis ball from the table and squeezed it, working out his tension, squeezing and resqueezing. At another window he lifted the curtain. The street was dark, quiet, empty. Walker didn’t understand that double agents lived in fear, chose their time, and that a cautious man wasn’t going to take an unnecessary risk.

Lights in the building across the street were dark except for a top-floor apartment. A big woman at the window pulled her sweater over her head and then reached behind to undo her bra. Mueller looked then glanced away. A light on the second floor. Had someone entered the building lobby? Through the window an older man stood in boxer shorts before an open refrigerator. He drank milk straight from a quart bottle and then he shuffled off to the kitchen table and sat by a console radio. Mueller looked back at the top floor, but the curtain was drawn.

How long should he stay? Walker and his men wouldn’t abandon the stakeout until long after it was an obvious bust. No one wanted to admit failure, or have to invent excuses. Mueller was officially just an observer.

He saw a young man with a notepad approach from across the room. Crew-cut, freckled face, no tie, boyish smile. Too young for this type of assignment.

“You the CIA guy?” the young man asked.

Mueller narrowed his brow. “Who are you?”

“The Star.” He lifted the press badge hanging around his neck.

Mueller confronted Walker by the fire escape window. Two men standing inches apart in the darkened apartment. Mueller snapped, “What’s he doing here?”

“He’s okay.”

“We said no press. No surprises. No embarrassments.” He didn’t hide his anger.

“I had no choice,” Walker said laconically.

Mueller gave the agent-in-charge a cold, hard glare and considered who in his chain of command had authorized a reporter. He held back what he wanted to say, that under the circumstances the best outcome for the CIA was that their man didn’t take the bait, didn’t show. “We had an understanding,” Mueller said. “This wasn’t it.”

“He’s a kid. He’ll write what he’s told to write.”

“What does he think is happening?”

“Vice squad got a lead on a State Department guy who cruises Lincoln Park. Security risk. We arrest him and book him. Metro Police give the kid the story. He’ll write what he’s given.”

Mueller headed to the apartment door.

“Where are you going?”

“A little fresh air.”

Walker raised his voice so that it carried to Mueller in the hall stairway. “He’s okay.”

Outside, Mueller stood hidden from view on the top step of the building’s stoop. He lit a cigarette. Habit. Then thought better of it and flicked it in the snow. His eyes settled on the empty street where he saw nothing to change his mind that the night was a bust. The Capitol Building fretted the tree line of the park, a gleaming dome in the night, a navigation point above the neighborhood’s sprawling poverty. In the distance Mueller heard the anxious wail of a police siren and then behind him, the soft click of the door closing. He saw Walker. They stood side by side without talking.

“I hear you’re leaving the Agency,” Walker said.

“Who told you that?”

“One of the guys.”

Which guy? Mueller nodded. “If we get him tonight I’ll be gone by the end of the month.”

“What’s next?”

“Fly-fishing.” A lie.

“That will last a while.”

Mueller didn’t indulge Walker’s sarcasm. He didn’t like Walker, but he tolerated him, and he kept him close to keep himself safe. Walker was too ambitious for Mueller’s taste, quick to take credit for success, quick to blame others for his own mistakes. Mueller didn’t like Walker’s having that detail of his personal life. He kept private matters away from his job, but the daily grind made that hard. Each morning he got up to face the endless urgency of ambitious colleagues inventing useful crises. Politics had taken over everything. He was tired of the double life, the daily mask, and he’d lost his ability to appear interested in a conversation when he was bored out of his mind. Walker bored him. But he knew Walker well enough not to trust him. Walker was a good weatherman of Washington’s changing political winds and he was a good spy hunter.

Mueller’s exhale came at last. “Where’d you get the tip?”

“The mailbox on East Capitol we’ve been watching. Someone left a chalk mark. This is the dead drop.”

“You know, or you think?”

“She left the lobby without the package. What else would it be?” Then, confidently, “He’ll come.”

The two men stood in the dark. “I don’t get it,” Walker said. “Great reputation, but your results stink. Vienna was a failure. So was Hungary. Last week you lost Leisz.” Walker paused. His breath fogged in the chilly night air. “Word is you guys got the news Stalin died by listening to Radio Moscow.” Walker flicked his butt to the snow. “Great reputation, but your results stink.”

“Piss off,” Mueller said. He thought about the damn fool Leisz. Ignored the rules after he’d been warned, thinking he wasn’t at risk, then got sloppy and paid for it.

“Someone’s coming.” A voice from the window above.

Mueller and Walker saw the young black woman at the same time. Blond wig, leopard-skin coat, stiletto heels, and a tiny rhinestone purse clutched in one hand. She had emerged from the tree line at Lincoln Park and glanced both ways before making a two-step hustle across the street. Mueller and Walker stepped back deeper into shadow.

When she achieved the opposite sidewalk she glanced over her shoulder. Mueller followed her line of sight to the streetlamp cleaving the darkness at the park’s edge. From the trees stepped an army enlisted man. Mueller saw the drab sameness of style of someone who sought to fit in, go unnoticed. Long khaki coat, a visor cap pulled down on his forehead, and a steady stride that didn’t bring attention to itself. She baited him with exaggerated hip movements and a calculated head nod. The start of another war had kept Washington filled with single men, and with single men came dreary bars with women who sold themselves.

“He won’t come with this sideshow,” Mueller said.

“They’ll leave. Hail a taxi. Go to a hotel.”

Mueller lit another cigarette and then regretted his choice again. He ground it under his heel. Drinking and smoking, two occupational hazards that had begun to wear on him.

The woman walked up the block, but slowed her stride to allow the man to catch up. The air was cold and crisp, sharp like flint. Suddenly she stopped. The two talked on the sidewalk. A bargain was struck.

“There’s something odd about him,” Mueller said.

“Odd?”

“The uniform. His shoes. He’s wearing loafers.”

The enlisted man opened the iron gate for the woman and then followed her up the steps to the apartment house lobby. He shot a glance over his shoulder before disappearing inside.

“What are you saying?” Walker asked. “It’s him?” Then a demand. “You think it’s him?”

“Not my call.”

Mueller saw Walker’s discomfort and he felt the torment of the decision he faced. Both men knew it would be impossible to recover from a bad call.

“So be it,” Walker muttered. He pulled on his glove, stretching his fingers deep into the leather, and clenched a fist.

Mueller watched the FBI assemble. Walker signaled his agent in the phone booth, who in turn placed a call. It took a minute, or less, for the Buick and two unmarked cars to converge on the apartment building. Two agents, handguns drawn, stepped from the first car and hustled up the steps to the lobby. Four other men took up positions at their cars, and one crouched agent scrambled toward the rear of the building.

Walker stood in the street barking orders to his team, and the sudden noise brought neighborhood residents to their windows. They saw black cars stopped at oblique angles on the street, doors flung open.

Mueller stayed out of sight, alone. He saw an FBI agent escort the army enlisted man down the stoop tightly gripping his arm. The enlisted man had lost his hat, his wrists were handcuffed behind his back, and his unbuckled pants rode down his hips. He looked dazed and embarrassed.

A second agent had cuffed the prostitute and guided her, protesting, toward a car. Her wig was gone and she was hobbling on one broken heel, shouting fierce baritone obscenities at the agent who hustled her down the steps.

“Don’t rush me,” the transvestite yelled, “I’ll sprain an ankle.”

Mueller waited until Walker emerged from the apartment lobby and then he stepped out from his hiding spot. They met halfway across the street, Walker agitated, his face twisted in a scowl. He waved a stack of bills at Mueller as he walked past. “Keep this farce to yourself,” he snapped. “Don’t say a thing. Not a word. Hear me?”

Walker slipped in the Buick’s front seat and slammed his door shut. In a minute the cars were all gone and Mueller stood alone. There was one orphaned stiletto heel on the sidewalk that he dropped in a garbage can.

He walked rapidly away. He didn’t bother to look behind to see if anyone noticed him, or to check on the curious neighbors. But at the end of the street he happened to turn. An instinct he’d acquired in Vienna after the war, the feeling of knowing when he was being observed. There at the corner in the shadow of a mature tree, a tall man in a gray homburg, hands shoved in the pockets of a long trench coat. There was something suspicious about the figure. Mueller read into every stranger the possibility the person was tailing him, and this man got his attention. Mueller stood there thirty feet away on the other side of the street, staring at the motionless figure, who stared back. Mueller couldn’t make out the man’s face, or the shape of his jawline in the hat’s deep shadow.

“Hey, you,” Mueller yelled.

He went to cross the street, but a garbage truck fitted with a snowplow lumbered by in a riot of noise. When the truck passed, Mueller looked for the man, but he was gone.

Excerpted from An Honorable Man by Paul Vidich. Copyright © 2016 by Paul Vidich. Excerpted by permission of Atria/Emily Bestler, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

 

You May See A Stranger
By Paula Whyman

Pogo wants to pay for everyone.  It’s a big night for him, and he’s taking us to the country club. Cheever and his girlfriend are coming, too. Cheever is Pogo’s younger brother. Their father’s name is on a plaque somewhere in the building.  

“On a bar stool,” Pogo joked.

“His name is the same as yours,” Cheever told him.

Pogo has wads of cash in his pocket. I have a small square of paper in my purse. It’s proof of something I don’t quite believe. When the doctor said it, I thought of an incubator and chicks, my body as a holding area, warm, but like everything else, temporary. Pogo will eventually show everyone the cash. I don’t plan to show anyone the paper. This is Pogo’s big night, not mine. One big night at a time seems like a good philosophy.

Cheever and Natasha are already at the bar when we arrive.  Natasha’s glass is full and sweating in her hand. She swirls the yellow straw between her fingers. Cheever orders a gin and tonic for himself. He and Pogo don’t look like brothers, but they look related. They slap each other on the back with friendly hostility, which leads into a wrestler-grip hug held a few beats too long. 

“I’m proud of you,” says Cheever. He tries to mess Pogo’s hair, but Pogo blocks him. Pogo tries to mess Cheever’s hair instead, except he can’t because it’s short and bristly, so it ends up looking like a plush carpet you stroked in the wrong direction. 

Pogo orders drinks for both of us. He’s had two already, before we got here. One before we got in the car, and one he finished on the way to the club, while I drove. His cheeks and his nose are pleasantly red. 

At the bar, I hold up the car key for him to take, and he shows me his pocket. I reach over to slip the key into his khakis, and he grabs my fingers. 

“The other one,” he whispers in my ear. 

I put the key in his other pocket, on the side facing away from Cheever and Natasha, the side without the wad of cash in it. I reach all the way in to stroke him through the lining of his pocket. He isn’t wearing underwear. I can feel the hard curve of him. If I try, I think I can feel his blood rushing. He keeps talking, leaning up against the bar. He leans toward Natasha. While he talks, he touches her with his hand that holds the drink, as if he might rest the glass on her shoulder. I squeeze a little.  He flinches in a way only I would notice, and he has to stop my hand and shift himself. All this he does seamlessly, while holding the drink in the other hand and expounding on the vagaries of the market.  

Pogo has an old Mercedes. His father has one, too. His affection for old things confuses me—some are quality, and some are just old. The idea is to look like they don’t care about money, or even think about it. If you’ve had enough of it for a long enough time, say, generations, you don’t think about it in the same way as other people. But that’s someone else’s money, and whenever Pogo manages to get his own, he wants everyone to know. In my family, what modest funds my parents earned were spent on my sister’s doctors and life-skills counselors, and on the annual summer jaunt to a nearby mountain lodge, where Donna and I counted dead flies on the windowsill and held our noses against the smell of the septic tank. We’d never had the luxury to act like we didn’t worry.

*

On the way to the club, Pogo and I stopped in the parking lot of Broder’s, the gourmet grocery store. We shut off the car engine, but left the radio on. We parked at the far end of the lot, but I could still see people coming and going, pushing their carts, which were smaller and daintier than the carts at a run-of-the-mill store.

I didn’t want to mess up my skirt by hiking it up to my waist, so I took it off. Pogo tilted the passenger seat back as far as it would go, and I straddled him. It was cramped, and I had to hunch my shoulders to avoid hitting the ceiling. At one point, I leaned forward all the way and lay on top of him, and he pushed me up with his pelvis and shouted “giddyap.” He can be a goof that way. I was so high up, I thought later about my naked bottom and the car’s moon roof, and shouldn’t I laugh about it? But I wasn’t exactly thinking about it at the time. A vibration was beginning inside of me, like the background hum of an amplifier. Clapton was singing, Nobody’s lucky till luck comes along/Nobody’s lonely till somebody’s gone. That’s when I came. Pogo already had, a moment before. It was still daylight.

I wasn’t into it at first, doing it outside of Broder’s, or even at all. Pogo could nearly always persuade me; he knew and I knew that I would end up feeling like it before he was done. After that, I drove us to the club. The thrumming in my body continued to reverberate, in seeming rhythm with the rattling diesel engine. I wanted to be still for a while longer and let it finish whatever it was doing to me. 

Pogo said, “‘You, in the cheaper seats, clap your hands; the rest of you just rattle your jewelry.’” This was John Lennon at the Beatles’ Royal command performance, Pogo was fond of reminding me. 

“Am I the queen?” I asked.

“You are the queen of all you survey,” said Pogo.

“The Broder’s parking lot?” I said.

“Your fiefdom.”

“Are you my serf?” I asked.

“I serf no one,” said Pogo. 

“Ugh,” I said.

When we got to the club, I went to the ladies’ room. There were hand towels made of the same fabric you’d make cloth napkins out of, folded in rows on a table near the sink. I wanted to bring one into the stall with me to clean up from preceding events. I couldn’t though, because there was a black woman sitting on a chair in the room, wearing what looked like a nurse’s uniform. She was an attendant.  I wasn’t sure what she was going to do for me, and I didn’t have time to figure it out.  My insides felt shaken up and rearranged, and standing in that dim room with the slightly antiseptic odor tipped the balance toward one arrangement rather than another. I bent over the toilet, my bare knees pressed into the knobby floor, and waited. I threw up, and threw up again. After a while, it stopped on its own, and I sat on the rim in a weakened state, leaning to one side so that I could feel the cool wall tiles. I could fool myself that I was empty, if only for a moment. I had a vision of my body turned inside out, gleaming pink, pristine. So much for that. My knees hurt, as if I’d knelt in pebbles. I sat for as long as I thought I could, awaiting with dread the attendant’s tap on the stall door, or Pogo’s voice outside the ladies’ room calling to me. At that moment, nothing seemed more difficult than leaving the bathroom. 

When I finally emerged from the stall, the attendant handed me a cup of green liquid. I looked at her questioningly, but she kept her face neutral and turned away. I smelled it; it was mouthwash. She probably thought I was drunk, like the other girls the men try to impress, bringing them to the club for drinks before they get them into bed. But Pogo had done things in reverse, as usual. He didn’t have to get me drunk first. He didn’t even have to impress me. 

After I washed my hands, the woman handed me a towel. There was no place for tips, so I figured that wasn’t done. There was a large wicker basket where I finally realized I was supposed to put the used cloth after I dried my hands. I smiled at her and said, “thank you” when I left the bathroom. 

She must be keeping things clean between customers. For some reason, I imagine that she’s never permitted to leave the building; perhaps she can’t even leave the ladies’ room. I wonder if anyone on the outside knows about this, or if it’s a secret the members are expected to keep. She’s the only black person I’ll see at the club tonight.

*

At the club’s bar, I don’t touch my drink right away. I’m not sure how much I want to drink. Same way I was unsure about having sex earlier. I’m resolutely not focusing on the possible reason. Pogo puts the glass in my hand: “Drink the potion,” he says. He’s always paying attention to how much other people drink. I know I’ll oblige. I wonder if Pogo would still give me a drink if he knew. I can’t imagine him suddenly becoming responsible. This is, after all, what I both want and don’t want about him.

Pogo’s ten years older than me. Most men his age are married. He thinks I won’t push him. I play along. I’m only a year out of school, but it’s as if I’m the grown-up. Pogo wants to be a kid forever. 

My doctor asked me, is the father someone you’re serious with? I said yes. Then he’ll do right by you, the doctor said. I laughed. The doctor looked at me sadly then. If that were the case, I wouldn’t be pregnant. Or I suppose when I forgot to take my pill, I could have said no. When Pogo said, just this one time, please? We’d been dating a year, and up to that time I’d been very good about remembering it. I thought one time would be okay. And maybe it would have been. But if I’m honest I’ll also admit it was not just one time.

If we had a boy, first Pogo would teach him how to pee on the side of the road. Then he would teach him persuasion. These are not bad things to know, just as it’s not bad sometimes to let yourself be persuaded.

I stare at the coaster my drink has been sitting on. It’s the most substantial paper coaster I’ve ever seen, as thick as a whole pad of paper. Someone spent a lot of money on those. Worth it? I imagine the talk: “Our golf course is first rate, but you should see our coasters—a well-kept secret.” Along with the black woman in the bathroom. The club’s fleur-de-lis symbol is embossed in gold in the center of the coaster. There’s a wet ring where my drink was. But the water doesn’t get absorbed, it sits on top. The fleur-de-lis reminds me of something. Sex-flower. Flower of lascivious pomposity. I make these phrases in my head; I entertain myself that way. The same symbol is on the hand towels in the bathroom. I almost cleaned myself with the seal of the King of France.

It’s easier to talk to Cheever and Natasha when they’ve had a couple of drinks, as if they discover their personalities. Maybe they think I’m the same. They’re talking about Pogo’s big news, except he doesn’t want to tell the whole story yet. He’s waiting for the moment of utmost drama, so he only drops teasers like, “Do you know how much cash I have in my pocket right now?”

I make a face that tells Cheever and Natasha that I know the answer, and won’t they be impressed? Pogo winks at me, commiserating. We’re like Penn and Teller.

“I hope it’s more than you have in your bank account,” says Cheever. 

Pogo showed me the money when we were in the car. He used the same line with me: “Do you know how much cash I have in my pocket right now?” This was right before we had sex. 

The money was rolled into a thick wad held tight by a rubber band. “I thought you were just happy to see me,” I said. “How much is that?”

“Six thousand right here,” he said, squeezing it in his fist. “The rest is being held at the firm. Earnest money. The importance of being earnest.”

“Are you supposed to have all that?”

“It’s mine, all mine,” he laughed maniacally and sipped his drink, which was in a real glass he’d brought from home. He’s the only person I’ve ever seen do that, bring a drink in an open glass in a car that isn’t a limo. But I never saw Pogo or any of his friends without a drink, a wisecrack, or a woman. They were not-quite Southerners in the not-quite South, pretend gentility and bad behavior coexisting without any apparent discomfort, like Pogo’s dress-code-correct pressed khakis with no boxers underneath.

“This is chump change,” he said. “After the sale, I get more. A lot more.” He unfurled the wad and started peeling off bills. There were fifties and hundreds. His pants were on, but my skirt was already off. I was stretched out next to him, reclining as best I could in the driver’s seat, the steering wheel preventing much range of motion. He laid one bill after another side to side, flat on my thighs, all the way to my knees. I stayed very still. Then, he lifted my blouse, and tried to put bills on my stomach, going up to my breasts, but my stomach was too fat, and only one of the bills would stay, the one covering my belly button. 

“Pizza,” said Pogo, smacking my stomach a little too hard.

“Look who’s talking,” I said. He was giving me an opening, but I was waiting for the right moment, too, and this wasn’t it. I thought of what I would do. And I thought, for the thousandth time, of what he would do. Would he look at that inky print-out, which resembled nothing more than a galactic cloud, an obscured thumbprint, his and mine together, and would he, like always, say just the right, wrong thing? I thought of taking that square of paper with my future printed on it and placing it over his crotch and saying, ‘Here. How much is this worth?’

“I thought you said I was cute,” he pouted, the insult to me already forgotten.

“The Pillsbury dough boy is adorable,” I said. Pogo had a round face, and he was flabby in the middle, but tall enough that he came off as sturdy and strong.  Would his baby have his baby face? His cheek was smooth to the touch. I imagined a tiny hand reaching out to it. I felt something tighten inside me. When I was a kid, what did I imagine about having a baby? Why do I only remember playing with dolls that looked like little adults? What would Pogo do? How could I know him for this long and not know the answer to that?

“Nya-nya ‘doughboy’ nya-nya. Very funny. You’re not as funny as me,” he said. “I’m the funniest of all.”

“You’re the King of Comedy,” I said. “Throw some more money at me, and I promise I’ll say whatever you want to hear.”  

“I’m deeply, deeply wounded by your sarcasm,” Pogo said sarcastically. He attempted to put a fifty over my mouth. I breathed out through my nose and the bill fluttered down to land on the floor mat. He snatched it up. 

“Beautiful money,” he said. “I’ve mistreated you.” He stroked it and reinserted it in the stack he held. He collected the bills from my thighs, along with the others that had landed on the floor of the car, and folded the wad back into his pocket. He leaned over the gearshift and kissed me. Slowly, he kissed all of the places where the money had been. When we were having sex, his pants were pushed down around his knees, and I could feel the bulging cash rub against my ankle.

 

Excerpted from You May See a Stranger by Paula Whyman. Copyright © 2016 by Paula Whyman. Excerpted by permission of TriQuarterly Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Rust Belt Boy: Stories of an American Childhood
By Paul Hertneky

The Prurient Power of Pierogi

In a place averse to looking back, cultural traditions in Ambridge emerged through religion, song, dance, and food. Mostly food, though, because every day when it hit the table it reminded us of our origins.

Housewives in the 1960s experimented with modern food, but they fell back on what they learned from their mothers. And the kitchens in church basements and parochial schools turned out some of the best Old Country cooking. For me, the melding of food and religion came together on meatless Fridays.

Sitting at a kitchen table my father had built, I picked up my bowl to finish the sweet brown milk left behind by the Cocoa Krispies, letting myself go cross-eyed, pretending I didn’t hear my mother click her tongue at my slurping. I stood up and set the bowl in the sink while checking the kitchen counter for my lunch box, and not seeing it. Oh, wow, it’s Friday, I thought when it hit me—no packed lunch today.

My father sat quietly, working his daily crossword, doodling profiles of beautiful women in the margins, his usual morning meditation.

“Dad, could I have some money for pirohi?” Not pierogi, which is what Poles and Croatians called the handmade, stuffed dumplings, served swimming in butter and onions. We Czechs and Slovaks had our own word.

Even though Milt would happily pay for my lunch, he insisted that I ask, as part of a larger lesson about money. “If you can’t ask for it, maybe you don’t need it,” he would say, explaining that when he went to the credit union or the bank for a loan, he had to ask; they didn’t just give it to him.

He smiled and dug into his front pocket, coming up with a fistful of change.

“How much?”

“Thirty-five cents.” Enough to feed a nine year-old.

He held out a calloused hand and reminded me to take enough for milk. “Sixty-five for me,” Mark said as he swaggered in. He was three years older. My father whistled low in mock-disbelief and snapped each coin on the Formica table one at a time. Betty jerked away from the counter where she had been buttering toast, annoyed by the snapping of the coins. Mark kissed her and she handed him a glass of grape juice. He downed it, grabbed the change and two slices of toast.

Watching quietly behind his empty bowl, Chris, who was just finishing first grade, looked up at Mark with wide eyes and announced, “Pirohi today!” Mark swallowed and said “Well, it is Friday, doofus.” With that, Betty, known for her prickly morning moods, popped Mark behind the right ear. He shook it off, and after a hurried round of kisses, we headed out the back door on a typical Friday morning, going off to school with more freedom than on the other days of the week. None of the Catholic schools provided everyday lunches, but their churches raised money with pirohi, or pierogi, or pirozhki. On Friday, without lunchboxes or bags, I had a free hand with which to gesture and swat, pick up pebbles and throw them at street signs, on our way to the bus stop.

Streets in the neighborhood ran like creeks to a river that was the main road. Out of the tiny households came kids with an array of European surnames: Marcia Sokil, with her fine and even Ukrainian features, would get off the bus at Sts. Peter and Paul; Dave Duplaga, a Pole, would say goodbye in front of St. Stanislaus, Bobby Cipriani at St. Veronica’s.

Swaying like a drunk around the corner, the bus skidded onto the gravel shoulder. It was a heap, an eyesore even in its industrial surroundings. Tosta’s Bus Company served the parochial schools, hauling their students in broken-down buses of two designs: the salvaged city bus, and the retired tour coach. The city buses, with fare boxes, shiny handrails, outdated billboards and cables for requesting a stop, were like rolling funhouses. In contrast, the coaches were dark and quiet, with overhead luggage racks and high, reclining seats that were threadbare and torn.

All the buses had rusty floorboards with holes big enough to see the road, but too small to lose a foot through, and gearboxes that just caught. The drivers, all mechanics, wore greasy jumpsuits and smelled like garlic, motor oil, and sweat. One smoked a pipe while he drove, stuffed with what could only have been plain old oak leaves.

“Oh…God…no,” I groaned when the door swung open and smoke rushed out like a late commuter. I saw the goofy smile of the green immigrant, holding the door lever with the same hand that held his goosenecked pipe, its mouthpiece crushed from his few remaining molars.

Inside, a cloud hung over the luggage rack. The usual choke of moldy seats and exhaust fumes that seeped up through the floor was overwhelmed by the smoldering trash in the driver’s pipe. We made gagging sounds and laughed, but the driver only watched us and smiled with his pipe in his teeth. Most days I prayed for the bus to break down. My hopes sprang from the frequency with which it happened—first a loud clunk, then a whimper from below, the driver cussing and wrestling the rig onto a lawn or a sidewalk. They never called for help, preferring to slide their toolboxes stored under their seat and fix it themselves.

On Fridays, though, my brothers and I wanted a smooth ride. By the time the bus wheeled to the curb in front of Divine Redeemer, I noticed Chris’s vacant stare and gaping mouth. The poor little aromatically sensitive guy, who ran from the house to escape offensive cooking odors, had turned khaki. I yanked our bookbags from the luggage rack and escorted Chris down the aisle and stairs. On the sidewalk, he doubled over and gulped the fresher air while I stood behind him, throwing my head back and inhaling like a hound in a stiff breeze. That’s when I caught it. The scent of Friday shot to my salivary glands. When two nuns pushed open the churches’ oak doors, even the latent incense gave way to the embrace of butter and onions.

During Mass, the promise and seduction became unbearable. My stomach clawed toward its quarry while I knelt through the long Latin consecration. I stared at the ornamental sacristy and my eyes glossed over, seeing Jesus feeding hordes of followers by multiplying pirohi instead of loaves and fishes. Or my gaze landed on the soft white mound of Monica Halicek’s top vertebra. How its contours transported me, how its roundness resembled a tender potato pirohi.

Rising for the Our Father, I examined my conscience for any transgressions that might keep me from momentarily stemming my cravings with the appetizer that was communion. The unleavened wafer seemed a poor substitute for the flesh it presumed to replace. A better choice, I thought, would have been a slice of pepperoni.

Friday mornings dragged. Through religion, geography, and history lessons, I learned only forbearance. Even the nuns admitted their cravings and their secrets for coping: muttering mantras like “Jesus, have mercy on me”—ejaculations, they called them (setting up real teenage confusion down the road)—until the moments of weakness passed.

Billy Evans poked me in the back while Sister Tomasina answered a knock at the door. “How many you gettin’?” he asked.

“A half dozen,” I whispered out of the corner of my mouth, careful not to turn around.

“I’m gettin’ a whole dozen.” Of course you are; you’re fat.

When noon arrived, Sister Tomasina opened the door and the full force of cooking odors washed over us. She cuffed her sleeves and folded her thick, hairy forearms as she stood in the doorway and watched the younger kids file toward the basement. I squirmed in my seat, fishing out the coins and slapping them on my desk for a final count. Satisfied, I cupped my hand at the edge of the desk and slid the coins into it, except for the nickel that bounced off my thumb and fell to the tile floor, found its edge and rolled all the way to the back wall, where it disappeared between a row of bookbags.

Billy noticed and we were both tracking the nickel when Sister Tomasina must have signaled the class to rise and form a queue. Caught by surprise, I spun and stood, tipping over my chair. While righting it, I turned to see the angry nun hustling toward me. Her black robes billowed like a crow descending on roadkill. She took me by the ear and dragged me, sidestepping, to face the blackboard two inches away. When I dared to look sideways, I saw Billy being flung ear-first to my side.

I closed my eyes and memorized the color of the bookbags the nickel had rolled between: red and powder blue. But I doubted I’d have a chance to retrieve it. I might end up staying at the blackboard throughout lunch. Sister Tomasina’s heart had long ago been removed, we theorized, frozen and broken into particles that, when added to torpedoes, made them more deadly. Maybe she’d let us go later, when the entire school had eaten the best pirohi varieties. Billy seethed. I would pay for this on the playground.

As our classmates marched out, the sweet aroma intensified and God’s own forgiving breath must have swept in and subdued the nun. She ordered us to catch up with the others, but before we escaped she drew a four-foot pointer from the folds of her apron and sliced the air behind us, cracking both of our buttocks simultaneously.

The sting made us hop. But we were giddy as we started down the stairs and Billy elbowed me hard enough to knock me into the rail. That was it; retribution delivered. He didn’t hold grudges. Besides, we were dropping into the most overwhelming sensual pleasure either of us would know until puberty, with a narrow escape behind us.

The pupils, as we were called, filed into a bright multipurpose room filled with long tables, folding chairs, and noisy pirohi hogs. This feast was open to the public, and local workers on their lunch breaks sat along the west wall. Kids filled half of the tables in the vast middle, and along the east wall, facing the room, sat a brigade of silver-haired grandmothers. They carefully spooned fillings—mashed potato, sauerkraut, cottage cheese, and lekvar, a prune preserve—into the disks of dough they cradled in their floury hands. They folded the edges together and pinched the semicircular dumplings into shape.

The pinchers would seldom rise. Other volunteers rolled out the dough and cut it into circles with teacups, or mixed fillings and delivered them to the pinchers in heaping bowls, then returned to harvest the finished pirohi.

Pinching and chatting in Slovak or Czech to the friends who flanked her, my grandmother, Anna Rosol, found my face and smiled, flashing perfect false teeth. I broke free of my classmates, now dazed in pirohi nirvana, and scrambled behind the pinchers—“Hi, Mrs. Hovanec, Mrs. Yaniga, Mrs. Duda, Mrs. Sinchak, Mrs. Tabachka”—until I reached my grandmother’s strong arms and soft cotton apron. She kissed me and hugged me hard, pressing her wrists into my back. Her hands, kept chaste for touching food, flew away from me. She was careful like that.

By now, Billy had reached the serving line and I had to hurry. I patted the coins in my pocket and sorely missed that nickel. I suppose I could have asked my grandmother for one, but I knew she was too poor. If she were to give it to me, she’d probably walk home instead of taking the bus. Still, the shortfall forced me to reconfigure my usual order, maybe cutting out the lekvar, its mellow sweetness made sophisticated when it met salt, pepper, butter, and onions. I hated quandaries such as these.

Just as I was about to pick up a plate, a hunchbacked woman in a dark print dress emerged from the kitchen lugging a giant bowl of snowy cottage cheese. She saw me at once, cried my name, and set the bowl down. She wiped her hands and grabbed my face, mashing a kiss on my lips before pushing me away and tugging at the ear still tender from my trip to the blackboard. Like a magician, she let go and presented me with a shiny quarter in the palm of her hand.

Grandma Hertneky, an osteoporotic angel, always greeted me in public with a gangway flourish—even though I saw her nearly every day. Her gypsy drama, in greeting, feeding, scolding, mourning, or scaring, never subsided. She counterposed Grandma Rosol, whose serene demeanor shrouded her in ethereal gauze.

Now I was flush. I knew all the ladies wielding spoons, too, and one scooped four glistening potato pirohis onto my plate. Then I boldly ordered two kraut to go with my usual two lekvar, forcing me to hold the plate with both hands. Searching for a seat, I saw Chris, nose-down, all business. I also spotted Mark, who had just cruised in with the upperclassmen and stood on his tiptoes to assess my plate, as if he might cross the room and steal it. He winked at me.

With the long-awaited aroma buttering my face, I found Billy and sat, just before my knees were about to buckle from excitement. I freed my fork from its napkin wrapper, grabbed the salt and pepper, checked the caps for cruel jokes, and seasoned my little treasures. With my fork, I cut the firm potato pillow in half, exposing the fine filling placed there by ancient hands, refined through generations of argument, fulfilled by sunlight, pitchforks, and cauldrons of boiling water. I flipped its gaping side down in a pool of butter and smeared it across the plate.

The first bite made me close my eyes. The multipurpose room fell silent and every cavity in my head absorbed a humble gift composed of elements that sang secret lyrics to notes along an archetypal scale, a harmony to my subconscious. In my pirohi rapture I could be lost and found, week after week, even when I reached the age when ardent kisses tried to surpass it, and never really could.

Excerpt from Rust Belt Boy, Stories of an American Childhood by Paul Hertneky. © 2016 Paul Hertneky. Published by Bauhan Publishing, Peterborough, New Hampshire. Used by permission.

5 Over 50: 2016

by

Staff

10.12.16

Each year a lot of attention is paid to “new and emerging” authors under a certain age. Every fall the National Book Foundation honors a group of authors through its 5 Under 35 program, designed to introduce “the next generation” of fiction writers. And in the spring the New York Public Library offers its ten-thousand-dollar Young Lions Fiction Award to a writer age thirty-five or younger. Yale University Press only recently lifted the age restriction for the legendary Yale Series of Younger Poets, which for nearly a century stipulated that the publication award was open only to poets under forty. Every ten years the London-based literary magazine Granta names the twenty writers it considers the Best of Young British Novelists, all of them under forty. The New Yorker made waves back in 1999 with its first 20 Under 40 list—a popular feature the magazine repeated in 2010—anointing authors such as Michael Chabon, Junot Díaz, Jhumpa Lahiri, Sherman Alexie, Edwidge Danticat, and George Saunders as “standouts in the diverse and expansive panorama of contemporary fiction,” as the New Yorker’s fiction editor Deborah Treisman put it. BuzzFeed got in on that action with a feature in 2014, “20 Under 40 Debut Writers You Need to Be Reading,” that included the line: “Out with the old, in with the debut.”

While there is something undeniably exciting about news of the next big book by an undiscovered talent, we would like to remind writers and readers that new does not necessarily mean young, no matter how broadly that qualifier is defined. And while popular culture tends to favor youth, there is something equally exciting about the work of those authors who have lived more than half a century—some pursuing alternative careers, others raising families; all of them taking their time, either by choice or by necessity, and collecting valuable life experience that undoubtedly informs and inspires their writing—before publishing a book.

Here, in their own words, we present five authors over the age of fifty whose debut books were published in the past year.

Know the Mother (Wayne State University Press, March) by Desiree Cooper
Her, Infinite (New Issues Poetry & Prose, March) by Sawnie Morris
An Honorable Man (Emily Bestler Books, April) by Paul Vidich
You May See A Stranger (TriQuarterly Books, May) by Paula Whyman
Rust Belt Boy: Stories of an American Childhood (Bauhan Publishing, May) by Paul Hertneky

Desiree Cooper

Age: 56
Residence: Detroit, Michigan
Book: Know the Mother, a collection of meditative stories exploring the complex archetype of the mother in all of her incarnations.
Publisher: Wayne State University Press (March)
Agent: None

Twenty years ago I was deep in the throes of raising two elementary-schoolers and struggling to keep apace with the demands of motherhood, wifehood, and personhood. I had a career as a newspaper columnist, which I accomplished between drop-offs and pickups, sometimes driving three hours one way to deliver kids to tutors or games or piano lessons. 

Once a year I landed on the shores of a poetry residency where I was a board member (not an actual poet), feeling like a bedraggled refugee. It was there, in the late 1990s, that I penned a poem titled “Know the Mother.” It was a narrative poem about a daughter sitting by her mother’s deathbed, realizing that she will never know who her mother really was. I remember thinking, even then, “If I ever have a book, that will be the title.”

In March 2016, five days before my fifty-sixth birthday, I stood in front of a packed Detroit art gallery for the launch of my first book, a collection of flash fiction titled Know the Mother. By then I was a grandmother, a Kresge Artist Fellow, and a survivor of what could have been a fatal encounter with a semitruck only months before. 

All I could think was, “I can’t believe I lived to see this moment.”

Since the age of four, I have wanted only to write stories. But as part of the first generation after the civil rights movement and the oldest child of middle-class strivers, I quickly learned to think of writing as a hobby, not a “real job.” The currents of life sent me on a traditional path to college, law school, a career in journalism, marriage, and family. Through it all, I was a mare champing at the muse. I wrote for myself, on the side, in writing groups, at retreats. I found a community of kitchen-table writers who helped shape my voice. Frustrated at the stingy moments left for me to write, I often very nearly stopped, but I couldn’t stay away for long. Somehow I managed to believe in myself as a creative writer with little outward validation. 

Then, one day while I was lurking at a writing event, M. L. Liebler, one of Detroit’s well-known authors and indefatigable writing mentors, shouted “Send me your book!” when he saw me in the parking lot. My heart stopped and I looked around, wondering who he was addressing. He had heard me read at an event and assumed I had more. I had been outed.

Liebler liked my work and handed it to Wayne State University Press. When the gifted editors at the press and the brilliant publicist Kima Jones both said that they would get behind my manuscript, I was awash in disbelief. Maybe because, deep down, I had resigned myself to being a secret writer forever.

I would be lying to myself if I didn’t admit that the path to my first book was as lucky as it was labored. But there were forces that prepared me to step through the publishing door when it miraculously opened late in life. My career as a newspaper columnist gave me the muscle for compressed storytelling, a skill that shaped my ability to write flash fiction. I never stopped sharing my writing with other writers and readers. They became my community MFA program, teaching me what works and what doesn’t, forcing me to produce, encouraging me to stretch. 

My life as a mother gave me fodder, empathy, and insight into the human condition. It taught me patience that I never knew I could muster, and a concrete understanding that, while time often feels like a foe, it can be a friend as well. The women in my collection are informed by my own experiences—and those of the women I have met along the way. They are born out of a lifetime of living and observing how racism and sexism profoundly affect our intimate lives. 

When I was in my thirties I dreamed of writing a book called Know the Mother. But it wasn’t until I was fifty that I knew for sure who she really was. 

 

(Photo credit: Justin Milhouse)

Sawnie Morris

Age: 61
Residence: Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico
Book: Her, Infinite, a collection of poems that 2015 New Issues Poetry Prize judge Major Jackson calls “a ceremony of tantalizing music.”
Publisher: New Issues Poetry & Prose (March)
Agent: None

In the late 1980s, my husband and I founded and began working for what became a highly accomplished environmental-advocacy organization. Although the experiences expressed in Her, Infinite were written as that life was being lived, the seed poem did not arrive until 2007. The book gathered to its purpose poems written as much as fourteen years prior and five years after its own inception. Beginning in 2010, I spent five years submitting my manuscript to a wide range of presses and contests; Her, Infinite received recognition as a finalist fifteen times before being selected by Major Jackson for the New Issues Poetry Prize. The road to publication via contests was at times a grueling one, but I have no regrets. 

A poem is not simply words on a page but a way of touching the stars and having the stars that have fallen into the sea touch us. Our lives are poems. Everything arrives and passes away as it should, and we don’t know the ending—which is the moment the entire poem, its meaning and music, is revealed—until the last line is written, even though it has perhaps existed in the eternal now all along. If we are called to write—and love is the true measure of any calling—then it is joyful duty, even in struggle.

In the fall of 2014 I woke from a dream knowing Her, Infinite was finally going to enter the world. I was floating in the sea and the manuscript had become part of that great benevolence. I felt a gentle yet profound euphoria that had little to do with publication and more to do with connection and a sense of utter acceptance. I woke crying and with the understanding that something huge was transpiring in my life. 

On May 4, 2015, my beloved husband, an elegant and articulate abstract expressionist painter, received an advanced cancer diagnosis. Eight days later, in the late afternoon, post-surgery, as I was seated at the foot of his bed rubbing his feet, my cell phone rang. Her, Infinite had found a home. It would be another day before a faint happiness would appear to me in the form of a tiny asterisk moving whimsically around the hospital room while my husband recovered. It would be a year before true happiness, containing as it does a calm center, took hold in my body and I could feel both gratitude and awe for the mysterious synchronicity of those events—the cancer removed, the phone call from the press—arriving together, within the same hour. And even longer to appreciate the fact that the judge had taken an extra week to make his decision. The same week in which we were absorbing our terrifying news and plotting how to face, and with any luck, defeat it. 

In a world where such things happen, how can we doubt the auspices of timing, doubt ourselves, or allow anyone else to doubt us due to age and its conspirator, time? Age is only as meaningful as what we have managed to learn and absorb, in our minds, in our bodies. We are here now. Now is the moment to put pen to paper, fingertip to key—to learn and practice our craft, to open ourselves to the music arriving from outside as well as rising from within us, in search of a welcoming. 

Paul Vidich

Age: 66
Residence: New York City
Book: An Honorable Man, a Cold War spy thriller set in 1950s Washington, D.C.
Publisher: Emily Bestler Books (April)
Agent: Will Roberts

My path to writing An Honorable Man was long and winding. I had written two atrocious novels by the time I was twenty-seven, at which point I learned I was to be a father. At the time I didn’t believe I could be a successful writer, and certainly not one who could contribute to meeting a family’s financial needs, so I pursued my other, more conventional, ambition and got an MBA. I also promised myself that I’d quit business when we were financially secure and take up full-time writing again. In 2006, at the age of fifty-six, I didn’t renew my contract at Time Warner, where I had worked in the AOL and Warner Music Group divisions for eighteen years, which surprised many of my colleagues. I enjoyed my long business career, and I was good at it, but I always had the calling to write, and I  supported literary organizations such as Poets & Writers, whose board I had joined. I enrolled in the new MFA program at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, and began the workshopping and reading needed to develop the tools of written expression. When I started to write more seriously I was able to look back at a life—my life. I had lived a lot, and the distance of time gave me perspective. There was a world to write about that I did not have access to at twenty-seven.

In 2012 I received a letter from a literary agent who’d read a story of mine that had recently won an award. He liked the story, but he didn’t represent collections. Did I have a novel? I looked at my wife. “I guess I should write a novel,” I said. But which one? There was an abiding family tragedy that sat unsettled in my mind for years: My uncle worked for the CIA in 1953 and his unsolved murder remained a devastating family loss. I finished the first draft in forty-five days, and, of course, many drafts followed.

 The completed manuscript benefitted from critiques by six fellow Rutgers MFA alumni. (We still meet regularly and comment on each other’s work.) I sent the finished manuscript to four agents who represented authors whose work was similar to my own—espionage novels with a literary register. Olen Steinhauer is one such author who is represented by the Gernert Company. David Gernert liked the book but wanted some changes and introduced me to his young associate, Will Roberts, who handled the novel’s auction. I was fortunate to land with Emily Bestler of Emily Bestler Books, an imprint at Simon & Schuster.   

My advice to people coming to writing and publishing later in life: You have to want to write, and I mean really want it. You have to be disciplined about the work. You may have a story, but the writer needs to master the techniques of telling that story. And it is important not to be discouraged by age. You have to inoculate yourself from the perception, however true, that the world only seems to recognize youth and ignores the contributions of later-aged newcomers.

You also need self-confidence. One day, feeling down, I put together a list of authors who had debuted later in life. Raymond Chandler wrote The Big Sleep, his first book, at fifty-one; Julia Glass wrote her first novel, Three Junes, when she was forty-six; and so on. Compiling this list stoked my confidence. If they could do it, then so could I. 

Oh, and one other thing: I used to look at the many thousands of books published each year and say, “It can’t be that hard.” I was wrong. It is, in fact, hard work—but it’s worth it. 

 

(Photo credit: Bekka Palmer)

Paula Whyman

Age: 51
Residence: Bethesda, Maryland
Book: You May See a Stranger, a collection of funny, linked stories that illuminate the life of protagonist Miranda Weber and her strange, unsettling times.
Publisher: TriQuarterly Books (May)
Agent: Daniel Menaker

There’s a scene in my book where an antsy crackhead is waiting for a car’s cigarette lighter to heat up. “Why’s it taking so #%$&* long?” he asks. The car’s driver, who is not a crackhead, replies, “It takes that long.” 

I don’t have a satisfying answer to explain why it took so long to publish my first book of fiction. I’ve been making up stories since I learned how to talk, but I knew I would find no classified ads for “fiction writer” when I was looking for a job. I worked as a bar-back, a temp, and an editor, and many things in between, before returning to school for my MFA at American University. My first short story was published the week my first child was born. I was already over thirty by then, too old to be an ingenue, even though the story appeared in an anthology called Virgin Fiction. I went on to write two novel drafts and made false starts on a couple more. I wrote a lot of stories—some good, some terrible. Meanwhile, there were frustrations, uncertainties, and even tragedies.

It was hard to dedicate myself to writing while I was deeply engaged as a parent, especially when my kids were young. I lost touch with many of the writers I’d met in grad school; I was no longer part of a writing community. But my kids made me a better writer—they taught me empathy. And once they were old enough for me to be away, I began attending residencies and conferences. It turned out to be a good thing for me and for them. They take pride in my achievements, and I’ve given them a real-life demonstration of persistence and dedication and passion for one’s work. I’ll never forget when one of my kids excitedly told his English teacher that his mom was going to Yaddo, the same place the poet whose work he was studying, Langston Hughes, had gone to write.

The biggest advance in my work came when I finally stopped telling myself my first book had to be a novel. I think of it as the triumph of the irrational plan. I decided to allow myself to write the stories I wanted to write. I began writing stories that felt dangerous to me; I allowed the characters to go places I didn’t want to go. 

Like all writers, I’ve weathered a lot of rejection. I’ve always been persistent, and optimistic enough that I responded to the least encouragement. That encouragement, coming from people whose judgment I trust, has been key. 

And then there is serendipity. I met my agent, Daniel Menaker, when I took his humor workshop at the Key West Literary Seminar more than three years ago. I asked him for advice on my fiction, and to my surprise, he offered to represent me. I hadn’t written the book yet. 

I found my publisher—or he found me—when I was awarded a scholarship to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. My book was making the rounds and getting (nice) rejections from big houses when my scholar bio was posted on the Sewanee website. Mike Levine at TriQuarterly saw it and requested my manuscript. A few weeks later, he told me he wanted to publish the collection. The book came out this past May.

Do I wish all of this had happened more quickly? Sure. But the truth is, I could not have written this book when I was thirty. The more life experience I gained, the more perspective I could bring to the work. Along the way, I became better at choosing among my ideas and understanding how to make them work.

My first child turned eighteen shortly after my book came out. He starts college this fall. On my publication day, he told me, “I feel like I grew up watching you write. Now your book is ready to go out into the world, and so am I.” 

It can take this long. Are you too old? Is it too late? Nonsense. Imagination has no expiration date. 

 

(Photo credit: Jo Eldredge Morrissey)
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Paul Hertneky

Age: 61
Residence: Hancock, New Hampshire
Book: Rust Belt Boy: Stories of an American Childhood, a collection of essays about the immigrant experience, set in Pittsburgh and the author’s hometown of Ambridge, Pennsylvania. 
Publisher: Bauhan Publishing (May)
Agent: None

First, an admission: I did not grow up with a love of books, but with a love of reading. Newspapers became a habit, magazines a marvel, poems a playground. Bound mysteries and biographies from the library captivated me, but inspiration came from the once-literary pages of Esquire and the essays of Montaigne. 

I had never imagined myself a writer, much less the author of a cohesive volume of prose. Making my living through copywriting and journalism, I became friends with authors at a time when clear paths led to publishing books. Years of work went into each book, and the heartache of seeing them on remainder tables made the enterprise seem too Sisyphean for me. 

My stories and essays came and went on the wings of ephemera and airwaves, their footprints left in the tiny lines of the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature, then a library database. But no Internet. Not even the illusion of permanence, much less posterity. 

I cared more about my reputation among editors than my identity as a writer. I cared about my sentences, stories, sources, and serving readers and listeners. I satisfied my artful side by publishing an essay, or performing one on public radio. 

And then one day I interviewed a man over lunch who ordered steamed milk with honey. His taste for this biblical concoction tied in to the subject, forming a metaphor that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. I set out to write a series of essays and stories that, ten years later, became Rust Belt Boy: Stories of an American Childhood. 

My early manuscripts made little impression on the young intellectuals staffing the front lines at agencies and literary presses. Years of relentless rejection followed, but I continued to believe in my stories and in the invisible communities and characters they portrayed. I reformulated the book countless times, responding to advice from agents and publishers, and kept pitching. 

Revision became my solace, my drug of choice, the only activity that made me feel better. I cut and clarified, expanded and recast. A great friend, the novelist Eugenia Kim, believed in my book from the beginning and insisted that I continue, editing draft after draft for me, questioning and challenging me. 

You see, I had dedicated myself to a seemingly foolish task. Most of my published work had been tailored to narrowly defined readers and audiences. I wanted this book to engage literary readers while also captivating working stiffs, many of whom read less than one book a year. Reaching that broad spectrum with respect for a range of sensibilities demanded everything I had learned over twenty-five years of writing for publication.

Howard Mansfield, a friend as well as an author of nine books and a superb editor, had read one of the earliest versions of Rust Belt Boy. He told me how pleased he had been working with Bauhan Publishing, a small press with distribution by the University Press of New England, for his upcoming book. I knew of Bauhan, and I hadn’t thought my book would fit in with their New England–centered list. 

But I also knew that its former managing editor, Jane Eklund, had liked my essays well enough to publish one years earlier in a literary magazine she edited. Soon after I gave her the manuscript, she recommended it for publication by Bauhan.

 Trusting my pitch that my collection carried universal themes for millions of mill-town kids, the Bauhan team produced a beautiful book and has supported it well. With the help of publicist Scott Manning, the book enjoyed a strong launch, required a second printing within weeks, and has drawn considerable attention from media and reviewers. 

My own truth for book writing: I will only write a book that means the world to me, that obsesses me and compels me, as long as it takes, sentence by sentence, to earn the attention of readers, to hold them, and leave them wanting more. 

5 Over 50: 2017

by

Staff

10.11.17

All of the published authors who appear in the pages of this magazine have roads behind them—paths to publication that are as unique to each writer as their own poems, stories, and essays. Some of these roads cut a straight path, while others turn this way and that; some double back and crisscross, while others are under construction, redirected by detours and bypasses. Sometimes there are shortcuts, but other times there are long scenic tours through many of life’s most notable markers: births, deaths, loves, families, travels, careers. Periods of joy and contentment followed by episodes of darkness, difficulty. Achievements and failures—all of it informing, inspiring, delaying, or precipitating the writer’s work in some way, directly or indirectly.  

The authors featured in our second annual 5 Over 50 have followed different paths as well, but their routes to publication are perhaps a bit longer—and, one could argue, more nuanced, often more complex, and even more, dare we say it, interesting—than those of “younger” writers who have the spotlight in today’s youth-focused culture. If our 5 Over 50 authors have one thing in common, it’s a sense of patient determination to create something meaningful, beautiful. And it really doesn’t matter how long that takes. As Peg Alford Pursell says, “There exists only one moment—the last—at which it’s too late for anything.”

Here, in their own words, we present five authors over the age of fifty whose debut books were published this year.

A Small Revolution (Little A, May) by Jimin Han
States of Motion (Wayne State University Press, May) by Laura Hulthen Thomas
Getting It Right (Akashic Books, June) by Karen E. Osborne
Ground, Wind, This Body (University of New Mexico Press, March) by Tina Carlson
Show Her a Flower, a Bird, a Shadow (ELJ Editions, March) by Peg Alford Pursell

 

Jimin Han

Age: Fifty-one.
Residence: South Salem, New York.
Book: A Small Revolution (Little A, May), a novel that unravels the intertwined narratives of a hostage crisis on the campus of a college in central Pennsylvania, two young people finding love, and a student uprising in South Korea.
Editor: Vivian Lee.
Agent: Cynthia Manson of Cynthia Manson Literary Agency.

Recently I was invited to speak on a panel about literary friendships at the annual alumni festival at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. The panel was scheduled for a smaller auditorium than where the other events were being held, and one of the other panelists, my longtime friend Patricia Dunn, author of the novel Rebels by Accident (Sourcebooks Fire, 2015), joked that no one would show up. She was wrong: It was standing room only. I spoke about how important it is to find spaces to protect and nurture my writer self and that the most significant space for me is my writers group. 

Alexandra Soiseth, author of a memoir, Choosing You: Deciding to Have a Baby on My Own (Seal Press, 2008), was the other member of our panel. Patricia, Alexandra, and I have been in a writing group with four other writers for nearly twenty years, ever since we left our MFA program. That small fact made the audience collectively gasp. A number of people asked how our friendship had helped us write and publish. 

The answer wasn’t just about how we critiqued one another’s work, although we all had something to contribute in that department; we’ve all taught at some point and shared revision techniques and writing prompts in our weekly meetings. The answer also had to do with how we support one another, how we celebrate birthdays, pregnancies, marriages, divorces, new loves, anniversaries, graduations, new pets, and how we’ve leaned on one another through infertility, cancer, miscarriages, abortions, IVF, depression, menopause, restraining orders, deaths of parents, deaths of pets, job changes, surgeries, periods of drought and indecision in our writing, and periods of doubt when we thought we’d given up for good.  

Four years earlier, at one of our Friday-night writers group meetings, at essayist Kate Brandt’s house (we meet at one another’s homes or at local cafés), it was my turn to announce I was quitting writing. The manuscript I’d been working on seemed to be at a dead end. Maybe it seemed so because my mother had recently suffered a stroke and I was preoccupied with what she needed. Playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer, author of Informed Consent, End Days, and other plays, said that she’d write alongside me for as long as it took for me to feel connected to my book again. She meant it; she met me every day until the way seemed possible. 

My writers group helped me realize I had to address the inner despair that got in my way—personal work that required a therapist. It took three false starts before I found the right one. We talk a lot about the future in our sessions. This is a simple truth: The future is unknowable. I never knew whether I’d have a book published, but I knew the act of writing sustained me. During one session, after I told my therapist that I hadn’t written that day, she replied, “Why not? If it helps you, why not? Who knows where it will lead?” 

I was inspired by her question. I found myself feeling entitled to say what I wanted to say again in my writing. The therapist worked with me to unpack the origins of self-doubt that plagued me. It wasn’t easy, it still isn’t, but I was able to push through and complete the novel. Waiting at the end of that process was my agent, who was enthusiastic about my manuscript. She was able to sell it to an editor who loved it and understood what I was trying to accomplish. This last part—publication—is so much about luck. I’ve read many compelling manuscripts written by brilliant writers that have not been published. But that isn’t a reason to give up.

The only part we can control is writing and accepting that we don’t know where it will lead—which is all the more reason to keep trying. 

 

(Photo credit: Janice Chung)

Laura Hulthen Thomas

Age: Fifty-one.
Residence: Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Book: States of Motion (Wayne State University Press, May), a collection of vividly rendered stories set in small-town Michigan that follow characters broken by economic hardships, betrayal, and conflict in the mess of real life.
Editor: Annie Martin. 
Agent: None.

The day my dream editor, Annie Martin at Wayne State University Press, called to reject the manuscript of States of Motion was the day I decided to give up on fiction. The no should have been business as usual. A writer like me works for many years before hearing yes to even a single story. My long stories shatter nearly every literary magazine’s word-count ceiling, so acceptances are rare. That this editor had read my collection at all felt like a one-hit wonder. I’d contributed to her press’s anthology, so she was a sympathetic, generous reader. Her rejection felt like the end of the line. Besides, real life was throwing one of its tantrums. My husband had lost his job in the recession. Our closest friends, too, were losing their jobs and homes. Writing fiction seemed…well, unaffordable. The editor extended a kind invitation to resubmit the manuscript when the stories did more than coexist. I wondered whether my life as a writer could continue to coexist with my life outside of fiction.

Several months after I stopped writing, I called my great-aunt Joan, who was dying of cancer. She’d always led a quiet life in her small New Hampshire town, but on the phone she recalled a grand adventure. In the spring of 1939, when she was five years old, Joan traveled with her mother on one of the Queen Mary’s last voyages before the ocean liner was retrofitted as a World War II troopship. A terrible storm outside New York almost swept Joan overboard. “The waves were sloshing the decks something wicked,” she said. “Then suddenly Mother lifted me up and held me out to the storm.”

“Wait,” I said. “By ‘held out’ do you mean she dangled you over the railing?”

“Oh, yes. The clouds were black and folding over each other like snakes. The ocean was crashing into the hull. The waves seemed to come right up to my ankles.”

As a protective mother, I was aghast. Who was this reckless great-grandmother I’d never met? A woman who decided to take her continental tour alone, with her five-year-old daughter in tow—when the continent in question was approaching war?

This was a woman who didn’t merely coexist with her life and times.

I saw then that abandoning my work was just a safety railing. I set aside the collection to write new fiction about Southeast Michigan’s troubles. I invited my dearest writing buddies to an inspiring DIY retreat at a cabin on Lake Huron. Years later, when my stories were no longer coexisting, but conversing, I resubmitted States of Motion to the dream editor. 

The book came out just before I turned fifty-one, well after the hope for dreams you might achieve matures into the acceptance that you just might not. I have found, however, that not publishing earlier in life has been a gift. By hearing yes only rarely from editors and readers, I discovered how to say yes to my work, today, right now. I no longer seek the writer I should be, but the writer I am.

Several days after my great-aunt told me of her greatest adventure, Joan passed peacefully. Before we hung up for the last time, I had asked why she thought her mother had thrust her over that railing. “Laura, she just wanted me to be able to see,” Joan said. How courageous of my great-grandmother to show her daughter the terrifying beauty of risk, even when no one else is on deck to share the view. 

 

(Photo credit: Ron Thomas)

Karen E. Osborne

Age: Sixty-nine.
Residence: Port Saint Lucie, Florida.
Book: Getting It Right (Akashic Books, June), a novel about half-sisters—one the product of an abusive foster-care situation, the other of dysfunctional privilege—who finally meet during their father’s final days.
Editor: Marva Allen.
Agent: Marie Brown of Marie Brown Associates.

Writing was always my dream. As a girl growing up in the Bronx, I told my friends stories I’d made up but pretended were true. I wrote my first short story when I was twelve. In middle school I’d submit book reports on my own stories with fake author names and receive As. Under my graduation picture in the Evander Childs High School yearbook, next to “Ambition” it said “Writer.” 

Of course, I also read over the years, often consuming a novel a week in spite of a husband, two small children, and going to college full time. I squeezed in moments to read for pleasure, and every novel made me yearn to write my own. 

For forty-two years, like the protagonist Kara in my novel, I suffered the consequences of childhood sexual abuse, before finding a therapist who helped me navigate a healing journey. During the years of gut-wrenching work, I freed secrets and worked through their aftermath. Along the way I met dozens of other survivors. I explored their narratives, motivations, successes, and setbacks. I learned the restorative power of gratitude, redemption, and forgiveness—major themes in my writing. But my goal for Getting It Right was to write a page-turner, not a book about abuse. One early reader described it as a “genre-bending mystery and family saga.” I kept the chapters short and the action fast, and I let Kara and her half-sister, Alex, lead the way. 

My career as a consultant, executive coach, and presenter specializing in philanthropy, opinion research, and organizational management led me all over the world as I taught, spoke, and consulted with nonprofit leaders. Storytelling infused every engagement. In each city, in every new country, I jotted down scraps of thoughts, words, and ideas in small notebooks stashed in my briefcase. Writing on airplanes, in airport lounges, and hotel rooms, I finished the first draft in a year. It took a long time to rewrite.  

Once I was finished—after I had shared the manuscript with trusted readers and revised and polished it—I took the next scary step: I sent the manuscript out in search of an agent. I networked, went to writing conferences, and took classes that included an agent’s review of the first ten pages. I sent it out and then sent it out again, and again.

Everyone says it because it’s true: Rejection is hard. I’m not sure which moments in the long process are the most memorable. The day my agent said she loved the book and wanted to represent me, or the day she told me that she had an offer from a publisher. We ate lunch and discussed the contract. I asked questions, took notes, thanked her, walked out of the restaurant—all quite professional. Once I hit the street, I cried all the way to the parking lot. 

I held my book launch in Australia, at the open-air restaurant at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Sydney Opera House gleaming in the background. It was an intimate affair. My husband joined me, along with two women I’d been writing with online for fifteen years but had never met. We hugged, laughed, and celebrated. In the weeks since, my readings, talks, and signings continue to fill my heart with joy as I keep writing. So far I’ve written two more books, and I’m working on a fourth. 

Another thing everyone says because it’s true: You’re never too old to realize your dreams. 

 

(Photo credit: Robert Osborne)

Tina Carlson

Age: Sixty-four.
Residence: Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Book: Ground, Wind, This Body (University of New Mexico Press, March), a poetry collection exploring the vestiges of war and redemption as a traumatized soldier returns home from WWII carrying a legacy of violence and abuse.
Editor: James Ayers.
Agent: None.

I watched Lucille Clifton, well into her fifties, perform: “these hips are mighty hips. / these hips are magic hips / i have known them / to put a spell on a man and / spin him like a top!” She danced and swayed and made the words into music in a small auditorium at Pacifica University in the late 1980s. I did not yet consider myself a poet, but I could not forget the sensual power of her words.

Ground, Wind, This Body began with the last poem in the book, “Embryo of Light,” which consists of dream fragments from the two and a half years it took to adopt my daughter Mia from China. The dreams came feverishly and took the form of my “pregnancy” with her. A beautiful poet and mentor, Laurie Kutchins, encouraged me to let the language and poems be as strange as the dreams. That permission allowed me to begin the book. I was in my early forties and just beginning to feel I had something of value to say. I am amazed at younger poets who find their voices early and are so strong. My voice, like my life, was fragmented and numbed for much of my early adulthood. In order to find it, I had to begin the long hard work of trauma and substance abuse recovery. My daughter, with her fragmented history, encouraged me to look at mine, and I started to write about how the war that lived inside my father was a force in our family.

This book was written over many years. It was made possible by community and endurance. New Mexico hosts a vibrant and active poetry community, and through workshops, readings, and writing groups, the poems were born. I sent out poems and most were rejected, as was the manuscript, multiple times. It was the power of communal work and exploration that encouraged me to keep going. It is so easy to give up, especially as an older woman with little confidence. I honor my teachers: Joy Harjo, Laurie Kutchins, Joy Jacobson, Valerie Martinez, Margaret Randall, Lisa Gill, Hilda Raz, Lynn Miller, and many others both at the University of New Mexico and in private workshops who bore witness to my efforts and encouraged me to keep going.

Writing and publishing are not competitive sports. Writing is the most important, but reading aloud brings the writing to life and allows for an audience. Listen to and read as many other poets and other writers as you can. Join a group that will root you on through the muck. Keep working on the craft with good teachers. Submit to paper and online journals, newspapers, art shows. Find local presses by talking to poets you know, noting which presses are publishing the books of poetry you love, and doing online research. I was able to publish my first book through the University of New Mexico Press, which has an honorable history of publishing books related to the Southwest. Encourage other poets to publish, to read aloud, to be heard. Buy their books when they come out, go to their readings. We live in a culture that doesn’t read enough poetry, so invite those people who don’t know poetry to go with you to readings. Send them poems you love. Animate the world with your words. 

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Peg Alford Pursell

Age: “Over fifty.”
Residence: San Francisco Bay Area.
Book: Show Her a Flower, a Bird, a Shadow (ELJ Editions, March), a collection of intense hybrid prose—flash fiction, prose poetry, and other forms that resist categorization—that pulls a world of almost terrifying beauty into laser-sharp focus.
Editor: Ariana Den Bleker.
Agent: None.

Recently I returned to the town where I grew up and where most of my family still lives. I went there to attend a wedding, to visit family, and to give readings from my first book in (somewhat) nearby Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. There is still no bookstore in my hometown, nowhere for a girl to window-shop and superimpose her reflection on a book jacket. I grew up knowing no one who made a living by writing, no one who wrote as a matter of course. Until college, I’d never been to a literary reading. 

This experience, or lack thereof, isn’t particularly unique, but it may have a lot to do with why I didn’t take my writing seriously until later in life. I was in my late thirties when I thought about learning to write, seeking entry into a then-unconventional MFA program—Warren Wilson, the first low-residency program (and, I might add, the best in the country). I was a single mother who taught in the public education system. I stole spare moments, usually in summer, to write. And though I’d entered and won a prestigious short story contest, I still didn’t understand my need to write, or to publish as the necessary completion of the creative act. 

During that recent trip to my hometown, I visited my sister and her husband, two lovely and gifted people who paint, play music, teach school—and, for the past year, have run the region’s playhouse. When my vivacious brother-in-law greeted me, he said something that took me aback. I didn’t register the exact words, but they had to do with his excitement about how we three are doing big things at an age when most people are supposed to be winding down—he and my sister taking over the theater and me publishing and promoting my book. 

The surprise I felt was similar to the one that anyone over fifty has experienced when passing the plate glass of a storefront, say, on the way to the post office. You catch your reflection: Can that aged face really be yours? It can. It is. But you go about your business—collecting your mail, recycling junk flyers—and the image is gone, never to supplant the picture of yourself you hold in your mind’s eye. 

Though it’s true that this is my first published book, giving readings, finishing a new book, and sending out work for publication are my daily activities—simply part of what it is for me to be in the world. I’ve come to understand the necessity. And I’ve come to understand that the act of creating follows its own imperatives. Writing—a story, a poem, a book—takes as long as it takes. To publish a first book over the age of fifty? I’m glad to say it doesn’t seem that unusual to me. I’m looking forward to the next one. 

As for practical advice, I’d offer that the essential value resides in respecting your own process and creative imperatives, in pushing through the self-doubts that all art-makers experience—that advice isn’t age-specific, of course. For me it comes to this: Never stop. There exists only one moment—the last—at which it’s too late for anything. 

5 Over 50: 2016

by

Staff

10.12.16

Each year a lot of attention is paid to “new and emerging” authors under a certain age. Every fall the National Book Foundation honors a group of authors through its 5 Under 35 program, designed to introduce “the next generation” of fiction writers. And in the spring the New York Public Library offers its ten-thousand-dollar Young Lions Fiction Award to a writer age thirty-five or younger. Yale University Press only recently lifted the age restriction for the legendary Yale Series of Younger Poets, which for nearly a century stipulated that the publication award was open only to poets under forty. Every ten years the London-based literary magazine Granta names the twenty writers it considers the Best of Young British Novelists, all of them under forty. The New Yorker made waves back in 1999 with its firs