BASS 2018: Matthew Lyons, “The Brothers Brujo” from Tough, Aug. 2017

Art by Cuban muralist Salvador Gonzalez Escalona

Art by Cuban muralist Salvador Gonzalez Escalona

I’ve always been fascinated with the phenomenon of American male rage, and how it’s communicated down from generation to generation, from fathers to sons, more often than not mutating into something far worse than it was before. In so many ways, that rage is a central driver in our society, and even if our bad decisions sometimes seem sensible, it’s not difficult to track the destruction that they can cause as we flirt with total annihilation. Gods, humans, or something in-between, we all inherit the damage that was done before us. Even though we like to think of ourselves as better, sometimes all we can hope to do is redirect it. Sometimes we can only make things worse.

~ ~ Matthew Lyons, Contributor Note

Psychology has lots of theories about the difference between anger and rage. Some see it as a matter of intensity. Others feel anger, normally a transient state, stores up to becomes rage, a kind of constant state of festering anger. Anger might be seen as a response to obstacles, whether it be a car that won’t start or a disobedient child; rage is the response to injustice. Anger is the product of everyday life; rage is the product of oppression and abuse. Anger turned inward becomes depression; rage turned inward leads to suicide. Anger can be productive, when managed, supplying energy to overcome the obstacles that trigger it. Rage explodes; rage destroys.

Lyons walks a fascinating line in this story between psychology and horror using a gritty reality that eventually blends with fantasy/magical realism drawn from Santería. I’m not going to try to parse the religious details, as they have many variants and I know far too little to reliably research, but it’s a rich avenue for exploration.

Skeet and Leonel, teenage brothers, live (if you can call it that) outside of town with their abusive father, a Santería priest who uses the name of the god Agaju.

Skeet turns to look at his brother, gets in real close, so Leonel has to look at the thick black X tattoos carved on the thin skin under his eyes. His earliest memory, his father buzzing the needle-gun into his face with cold, meth-head determination. The pain, the way it lit his brain on fire. The way he sobbed, like he was never going to breathe again. Red tears cutting down and pooling along the line of his jaw, dribbling on his bare chest and collarbone….
Skeet studies his brother’s face, somehow left unscarred by the old man’s cruelties, shaped more by neglect and self-reliance than anything else. Agaju’s damages are clever, left in places hard to find. Scars webbed under the hair, bruises punched in under his arms, belt lashes striped along his back and thighs. Skeet’s suffered too at Dad’s hands, but they both know Skeet’s the favorite, a fact that neither of them will ever give voice to. To Leonel, Agaju’s an empty temple housing a withered, sadistic god. To Agaju, Leonel’s a first draft, a failed attempt. Something to send out for beer and cigarettes and to fetch his brother.

Complete story available online at Tough

Another of psychology’s offerings is the self-replicating nature of abuse: the abused can become either the abusive spouse, or can find an abusive spouse and thus continue in the familiar role of the abused. It’s pretty clear which path Skeet and Leonel take in the story. But what about Dad? He’s a Vietnam vet who came home minus three limbs. I have to wonder what he was like before the war, if his abusive nature pre- or post-dates his trauma. I doubt it matters to the kids, though.

Another factor in the story is isolation. This, too, by the way, is often tied to abuse, as the abuser keeps the victims on a short leash and away from prying eyes that might want to help. The isolation is realized in the story, as the family lives on the outskirts of town, interacting only when the services of the priest are called for. It’s a kind of symbiotic system perfect for isolative practices: you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, except back-scratching in this case involves, on the one side, performing mystic religious rituals for the dead, and on the other side, providing income and not worrying about two kids. Sort of like parishioners of the Catholic church let their kids be abused for decades by priests who’d offer the Holy Eucharist.

Magic, connected to the rituals, plays a big role in the story. And, as the abuse is passed down, so is the magic, from father to sons, in a more malignant form. Not that the father’s magic doesn’t seem all that benign to begin with:

Something fucked up happens to a normal person’s brain the first time they see real magic. It’s like a disconnect. Because real magic isn’t like people imagine in the movies.
Real magic is so much better, and so much worse.
Most people can’t comprehend it, really. It’s too much, too sudden, too vulgar. So the brain only lets in little pieces, flashes of light and color and salvos of sound from far off and not much more. …
The truth is that magic’s a beast, enormous and lumbering and starving. It’s powerful, and it’s violent, and it makes a fuck-awful mess that people don’t want to see, or if they see, they don’t want to remember. So their minds compartmentalize and let them remember the lights and the pretty colors and the temporary suspension of the laws of physics. They hear thunder instead of screaming. They forget the blood and the shock and the stink and the explosions of teeth and hair that seem to come out of nowhere.
They forget that magic’s like watching someone get shot in the head.
Even when they’re watching someone get shot in the head.

This is not the kind of story I typically like, but I have to admit I found it totally compelling throughout even as I read while emotionally “peeking through my fingers” in places. After reading Jake Weber’s blog post analyzing the metaphorical possibilities, I wish I’d read more closely; I’m always blown away by his insights into the larger picture, particularly here, particularly now.

I’m also delighted to see Tough, a new literary magazine published primarily online by Rusty Barnes, formerly of the wonderful Night Train, make an entry into BASS. I don’t count crime fiction among my favorites, but I’m always glad that some of the less-traveled, but still highly worthy, corners of the literary internet are seeing some mainstream love.

BASS 2018: Jocelyn Nicole Johnson, “Control Negro” from Guernica, July 2017

Guernica art by Jia Sung

Guernica art by Jia Sung

In 2014, years before Charlottesville became known for a deadly white supremacists’ rally, a black University of Virginia student was detained by local law enforcement after he was turned away from a bar near campus. Moments later, a video showed Martese Johnson pinned to the ground, blood pouring down his face. “I go to UVA!” he shouted, as if he’d once believed those words would shield him. The next week, I recognized his image in the local paper: a boy in a suit, flanked by lawyers, his forehead marked by fresh sutures. Looking on, I received some share of this young man’s bewilderment and heartache; it collected in me. A year later, “Control Negro” spilled out.

~ ~ Jocelyn Nicole Johnson, Contributor Note

I was very nervous about my impression of this story. A quick tour around the internet made me more nervous: yes, the few people who were discussing it at this time were talking about what I considered the substory. Then I visited Jake’s blog, and was shored up; he, too, saw what I saw.

There’s a front-and-center story about the extra level of scrutiny black men (and women) must endure, about the automatic 50% boost given to the clean-cut white male from the middle- and upper-class family, the degree to which white people get second (and third, and fourth) chances, are seen to somehow be innocent even in the face of damning evidence (if you have any doubt about this, let me introduce you to a brief, highly relevant news satire produced by journalists Chris Hayes and Cord Jefferson back in 2013), while black people start from a place of suspicion. This is, in fact, what Toni Morrison meant meant when she called Bill Clinton the first black President: “’People misunderstood that phrase,’ Morrison would later say. ‘I said he was being treated like a black on the street, already guilty, already a perp.’”

This front-and-center story is compelling, as a young man, innocent of any wrongdoing just as Martese Johnson was, is arrested and beaten, just as Johnson was. I don’t mean to imply this is trivial. But, as infuriating and visceral as it is, I thought it was the setting, not The Story. The Story is the father.

My ACMs were all “good” promising young men, but they were flawed too if you scratched the surface. My dredging uncovered attention deficit disorder, depression, vandalism, drug and alcohol abuse. In several cases, I found evidence of more serious transgressions: assault and battery, accusations of sexual misconduct. Not one of these young men was perfect, yet each held promise, and this promise, on balance, was enough to protect them and to buoy their young lives into the future…..
What I needed, it occurred to me then, was to watch another man’s life unfold: a black boy not unlike me, but better than me—an African American who was otherwise equivalent to those broods of average American Caucasian Males who scudded through my classrooms. ACMs, I came to call them, and I wondered how they would measure up with this flawless young man as a watermark. No, it wasn’t them exactly—I wanted to test my own beloved country: given the right conditions, could America extend her promise of Life and Liberty to me too, to someone like me? What I needed was a control, a Control Negro. And given what I teach, it wasn’t lost on me, the agitation of those two words linked together, that archaic descriptor clanking off the end like a rusted shackle.
Those words struck in me and, from them, you grew.

Complete story available online at Guernica

This piece connects to other African-American literature via techniques and tropes from several recent books by black men about similar issues of suspicion and the father-son inheritance. I recognized the Letter to my Son style Ta-Nehisi Coates used to such good effect in Between The World and Me; the very idea of a father setting up his son as an experiment is part of the setup of Paul Beatty’s acclaimed satiric novel The Sellout; and the Only Black Boy in a Private School shows up in many places, but among them is the recently published They Come In All Colors by Malcolm Hansen. And that’s just the stuff I’ve read; I suspect there are more Easter eggs for those who are better-read than I.

Unlike Beatty’s character, the son in this story is unaware of the hidden hand of his biological father (or, for that matter, of his biological father, as he has no idea he is an experiment) at work throughout his youth. While some of that hand is observatory, some is also determinative via a cooperative mother and various subtle techniques. Instead of letting him continue with basketball (a “fraught cliché”), he’s encouraged to try swimming, but when he excels a little too much, he’s steered away from that, lest he become too exceptional. Dad has a fairly narrow range of experience in mind for his developing son.

When the boy is in college, Dad decides the preparation is done, and it’s time to flip the switch, to conduct the actual experiment. This seems to be a somewhat spontaneous decision, but was always part of the plan, and now we encounter the Martese Johnson event: when the police receive a call about a suspicious young man at a particular place, of course they grab the black guy, and of course he ends up bleeding.

I can’t adequately explain it, but I must tell you now that I was the one who called the precinct, claiming to have seen a “suspicious young man” at the corner of University and Second. I called but I did not specify your height, your color. Afterward, I hurried home, reassuring myself. Nothing will come of this, I tried to tell myself—and I will finally be able to let it go, or be let go by it. Son, please believe this, if you believe nothing else I’ve written: this was a test for them—for the world!—not for you.

It may have been a test for the world – a test the world failed, no shit, Sherlock – but it’s the kid who does the bleeding.

Parents go to all sorts of lengths, most of them well-intentioned, to give their kids the best possible chance at success and happiness in life. But that isn’t what Dad is doing. Presumably, the father-son bond never took; he has no more emotional connection to his son than he would to a mouse in a medical lab. He must know there’s a chance his son will be killed.

And this, then, is for me The Story: a father who betrays his son to what could have been the point of death. And why? Of course, Dad offers a self-absolving explanation: “But here, again, we must take a step back, and remind ourselves that this has all been in service to something bigger—that someday our sons’ sons might be spared.”

Does he believe this? Can he possibly believe it, that this incident will wake up America, when so many similar incidents (presumably, we’re not in some alternative universe) have not? If so, does he have the right to sacrifice his son, unaware, to such an aim? Of course not; the question itself is ridiculous. Is this more about a mediocre academician trying to go out with a bang? Does he expect to be admired for this? Or is this revenge on society, using his son as a weapon, for the wrongs done to him? Is it a metaphor for the failure of the Academy to address such inequality? Or a metaphor for the desperate measures that are needed? This – this for me is The Story: What was he thinking? What the hell could he possibly have been thinking? Or am I completely off base, and the son is the story?

I don’t know. I wonder what Johnson’s conception was; I wonder how this story reads to black people, particularly those involved in social justice. It’s almost satire, a man taking matters into his own hands, but it’s a little too realistic. I’m left uncertain, with questions – and very interested in possible answers.

By the way, Martese Johnson is now a law student at the University of Michigan. Now that’s what I call fighting back.

BASS 2018: Kristen Iskandrian, “Good with Boys” from ZYZZTVA #109

…I wanted to explore longing from the point of view of a preteen, a child, because I think we forget that children experience desire in all kinds of powerful and devastating and transgressive ways. Jill knows who she is and what her strengths are; she doesn’t need anyone to tell her how to be. From that self-assurance springs both her sense of humor and her capacity for deep hurt. I’m unendingly fascinated by where and how our two most human conditions – pain and pleasure – meet, blur, and swallow one another whole.

~~ Kristen Iskandrian, Contributor Note

Every once in a while, there’s a lot of discussion of the “unlikeable character” in fiction, how great stories can feature people you just don’t like. That’s not a problem here. Jill is one of the most likeable first-person narrators I’ve encountered. That’s interesting in itself, since I’m not typically drawn to kids (she’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 11 years old, still in elementary school and on a sleepover at a natural history museum). And I’m not typically drawn to girls who are so obsessed with boys. But Jill is irresistable: so self-aware, so analytical, and yet, so caught up by something out of her control:

My desire for boys and my desire for certain other things—often inexplicable, sometimes beautiful, frequently plain, occasionally attainable, like a tiny plastic fifty-cent notebook charm complete with even tinier pencil, for my charm bracelet; sometimes not, like these exquisite jewels that came from places in the earth that no longer even exist—were knotted together as intricately as a DNA double helix. I wanted and wanted and wanted. I believed, like my great Aunt Jill, that objects had the power to protect me from harm—the harm of loneliness and my own impermanence—and I believed that boys had the same power.

I’m left wondering why she’s so obsessed with boys. Is it to compensate for what she thinks are her inadequate looks – if I have a boyfriend, I must be pretty? Is she lonely? Is this some phase all tweens go through (I was a very late bloomer)? And I’m worried for her, because she’s so young, and she has years of dealing with clueless adolescents ahead of her. I don’t want her to lose this spark, because she’s going to have a lot of failures.

Is wanting boys the same as wanting objects? Does it all get swept into the category “desire”? An object can’t want you back; an object can’t reject you. Wanting objects is much easier; maybe you can’t afford them, but they don’t slip out of your grasp and wander over to a better owner. Which, of course, is about what happens at the museum.

I tried not to look at how Esau was looking at Adam, tried not to register it as anything but boyish camaraderie. I felt a pang of something – sadness, but also panic, and desperation, like I’d been given the chance to re-enter a good dream and had messed it up somehow.

It’s a classic third-wheel situation, where at first, Adam is the third wheel, and gradually Jill comes to realize she is the third wheel. I’ve had those moments. They’re not fun. She handles it extraordinarily well, but still acknowledges her pain. Damn, kid is eleven going on thirty.

In spite of my enjoyment of this story, I find it hard to write about, for an odd reason: my blogging buddy Jake went and wrote an extraordinary analysis of the story, from the structure of the epiphany trope to the evolution of Jill’s desire and self-awareness, to the just-sweet-enough ending. And that’s a good thing – it’s exactly the kind of commentary I look for on all these stories. But – I’m jealous. I imagine the story as Adam, his cheeks slightly flushed as he stands next to Jake as Esau, and here I am, Jill, realizing I’m just spinning straw into straw. But, like Jill, I’m taking it well, and I’m delighted to have learned something about reading fiction, about how to do this better (and relieved to have posted this on election day when no one is going to be reading blog posts about short stories). Now, where are the butterflies?

BASS 2018: Cristina Henríquez, “Everything is Far From Here” from The New Yorker, July 2017

It’s rare that I start a story with what could properly be called an idea. For me, the seed is always language, and when the words come they open a path before me. So I wrote the first line – On the first day, there’s a sense of relief – and continued from there, letting the story reveal itself. It’s a scary way to write, and it requires a certain amount of faith….
Although most of the story came quickly, I did labor over the ending. The woman is unravelling, and I wanted the language to do that, too, for that final image to be one not of stasis but of movement, reflecting the change within the character, but also to evoke a kind of lyricism at odds with the bleakness of that change.

~~ Cristina Henríquez, Contributor Note

Last year, I wrote about context a lot as I blogged through the stories: how they were written in one era, and were read in another. This story suffers a bit from that same phenomenon. We’re inundated daily stories of children locked in cages in detention camps, in some cases virtually kidnapped. We see stories of parents told if they just agreed to deportation, they would get their kids back, but only half of that deal happened. Life imitates art, exceeds art in horror and pain. Reading this story was agonizing. But I find I have little to say about it, other than the ending Henríquez mentions in her Contributor Note. I might have felt differently when it was first published over a year ago, but now, it feels… exploitive, somehow. Let me emphasize that it isn’t, not at all – but it has suffered from timing.

Our protagonist doesn’t get a name, yet another way of stripping away her humanity as she waits in a detention center for her asylum hearing, and worries about her son, separated from her by the smugglers who brought them to the border:

The man who was leading them here divided the group. Twelve people drew too much attention, he claimed. He had sectioned off the women, silencing any protest with the back of his hand, swift to the jaw. “Do you want to get there or not?” They did. “Trust me,” he said.
He sent a friend to escort them. When she glanced back, she felt a shove between her shoulder blades. “It’s only for a few miles,” he hissed in her ear. “Walk.”
By morning, the men were gone, the children gone. The friend, a man with sunglasses and a chipped front tooth, said, “I am here to take care of you.” What he meant was that they were there to take care of him. Four women. Which they did. Which they were made to do.

Complete story available online at The New Yorker

In his post on this story, Jake Weber emphasizes that this is not the US-instigated family separation program that’s been such a source of contention; this was part of the process of the journey. The smugglers she’s entrusted herself and her son to are exploitive and abusive, not much better than the violence and rape she is escaping in the first place. This is what always strikes me when I hear these stories: these are people who have few choices, and all of them are bad.

We hear about other people in the detention center. And again, not everyone is nice. Some are scam artists; some are bitter and hardened. The woman keeps trying to find out about her son, with no luck. She thinks another woman’s child is her son. She gives up her only possession, a ring, to get information that turns out to be useless. She can’t even get a tampon. There is no kindness, no comfort. And as time goes on, the woman decompensates:

And then one day there are leaves on the trees, and wild-magnolia blossoms on the branches, bobbing gently in the breeze. She will stay in this place, she tells herself, until he comes. Through the window in the dayroom, she watches the white petals tremble, and, in a gust, a single blossom is torn off a branch. The petals blow apart, swirling, and drift to the ground.
She closes her eyes. Where has she gone and what has she become? The blisters have healed, the bruises have faded, the evidence has vanished—everything dissolves like sugar in water. It’s easy to let that happen, so much easier to give in, to be who they want you to be: a thing that flares apart in the tumult, a thing that surrenders to the wind.

Henríquez accomplished her goal admirably; there is a definite disintegration implied by the text, echoing the woman’s mental disintegration. The images – petals, sugar, flares – do evoke a kind of incongruent beauty, even as they signal the tragedy of a broken soul. Agonizing. Make it stop.

BASS 2018: Jacob Guajardo, “What Got Into Us” from Passages North #38

"Two Boys" by L.S. Lowry

“Two Boys” by L.S. Lowry

My family lived two hours from all of the beaches on the Great Lakes. When we did get to go to the beach (my parents both worked full-time jobs) it was a treat. When we were at the beach, it was like we were a different family. My favorite beaches are in Grand Haven, on the west side of the state, where this story takes place. I loved imagining what it would be like to grow up there. Would a boy like me, a queer, light-skinned halfie, survive? What if he fell in love? What if he fell in love with someone he shouldn’t? Young, queer people become adept at hiding, but it’s hard to hide that you are in love.

~~ Jacob Guajardo, Contributor Note

This was all about voice. I kept picturing Delmar, our narrator, telling his story from within a sort of memory bubble, standing at the summer he and Rio are fourteen and first kiss, then looking forward to some grim realities as the boys’ paths eventually diverge.

Their mothers are able to afford just one house, so the two families live together, two Marias and the two boys. The absence of fathers is left vague for the boys: “They tell us we washed up on the shores of Lake Michigan… they gave us seafarers’ names.” It’s fitting that The Sea is more stable than The River, as Delmar graduates from college, meets his husband, and starts a family, while Rio drops out and ends up in rehab for heroin. But this is all long after that magical summer when they discovered love on the shores of Lake Michigan, while their moms ran the taqueria called Authentico.

We break into the empty summer houses. We scare the spiders out and play house. We spend the night in the empty beds after our mothers pass out drunk from rum and Cokes. We make the beds every morning, fluffing up the pillows. We take things that do not belong to us. Things we think no one will miss. I take cards from Euchre decks and tape them inside a lined paper journal. Rio cuts buttons from Sunday bests and carries them around in a velvet bag like they are marbles. We are monsters. We carve our initials into the underbellies of the summer homes’ expensive wood furniture. We lie under the giant oak frames of the summertime beds with a set of keys and cut away at the bed flesh. We find out that if the wood has not cured long enough the furniture will bleed. When I am twenty-eight and expecting my first child I will wonder what had gotten into us that summer and hope my child is not a monster.

This is the voice of nostalgia, a mixture of sorrow, regret, joy, humor, and gratitude. Told this way, the breaking and entering, the theft are just hijinks, kid stuff; even the sex seems almost innocent. Told another way, this would be a grim story of outsiders, townies gone astray. The voice makes it all seem bucolic. That’s what memory does, it softens the colors, blurs the sharp corners. At least, to some extent.

But whenever I read a memory story, I look for what incited the memory: why is Delmar remembering Rio at this moment? The timeline is unclear; is this memory during, or shortly after, the trip where he and his husband bring the sonogram of their first child, carried by a surrogate, to show his mother? For some reason, it seems later than that. Or is there perhaps a more tragic cause for the memory: Rio has died? I would think that would be made explicit. Just a random memory? I’m left with the question unanswered.

I suppose it doesn’t matter; what matters is that summer of first love, albeit a love that must be hidden. And then being caught, the same night they see the dead moose washed up on the shore. “We call anything we cannot explain that summer monsters.” Including themselves; this first love is complicated.

In his blog post, Jake Weber points out interesting juxtaposition of this story and the prior one, a story of a young girl learning about love in a very different way. I hadn’t thought of that; we trade humor for nostalgia, mystery for discovery. I sometimes wonder if, even given the alphabetical order of the stories by author, there’s some consideration of sequence in the selection process, particularly in the opening and closing stories. Makes the whole project seem a lot more complicated, doesn’t it.

BASS 2018: Ann Glaviano, “Come On, Silver” from Tin House #72

I came across a writing prompt years ago, and I wish I could credit the source but I can no longer find it, that suggested writing a story about a camp organized around a theme we don’t usually have camps for – such as wife camp….What would one do at a wife camp?
It turns out wife camps exist, usually in a religious context, and this took me down a deep rabbit hole of research on the ways we teach girls, across different cultures, what will be expected of them as women. I looked at initiation rituals, both formal and informal, and superstitions regarding menstruation. I also thought about how baffled kids often are when they first encounter adult behaviors that are upheld as norms but are, from an outsider perspective, bizarre and absurd; I wrote from that place of absurdity. I had a great deal of fun.

Ann Glaviano, Contributor Note

In the 50s, English psychologist Gregory Bateson proposed the double-bind as a cause of schizophrenia. That stance has been abandoned as neurotransmitters have become better understood, but the classic double-bind, a no-win situation in which conflicting rules are imposed, is still referred to as crazy-making because it does cause extreme stress and, depending on the context, psychopathology.

Nothing better exemplifies the double-bind as the realization Fin comes to at wife camp in this story:

I was supposed to want, and not to want, simultaneously. Those were the rules. There was no winning. I would fail either way.

Mom tells her not to be impatient, then tells her it’s rude to keep people waiting. She knows she’s supposed to be waiting for something, but no one will tell her what she’s waiting for. Give the girl a prize: make her swim for her life. What’s that, she can’t swim? Too bad.

This story is a lot of fun; if I sound less than amused, that’s only because good satire always buries painful truth under humor, and my sense of humor has worn a bit thin these days.

The camp, designed for girls who’ve had their first periods, has some of the normal elements – canoe races, cute team names, Stain Removal Classes (it is, after all, preparing them to be wives) – but there’s a lot of mystery connected to it. I suppose mystery is part of real-life camp lore: the camper preserved in myth who did something great, or who died; the legend of the Old Man in the Woods or some such thing. At Fin’s camp, there’s the Black Night Ceremony, which seems to consist of locking the girls in a room and telling them old wives’ tales about menstruation while the male counselors do… something … outside.

And then there’s the camp motto: Dignae et Provisae Iucundae. Neither Fin nor anyone else at camp knows what it means, but they recite it regularly. Jake Weber did a deep dive on this at his blog, including a consult with a PhD who couldn’t really parse the phrase beyond the translation of the individual words. If it’s as agrammatical as all that, I consider it up for grabs, so I’ll go with “Worthy and pleasing girls provided here”. It is a wife camp, after all. The hooker camp down the road probably has the same slogan, but forgoes the canoes.

Mystery is convenient when no one wants to really talk about something honestly. The girls know something important is going to happen, but they don’t know what. Now there’s a metaphor for marriage.

But the overriding (ahem) metaphor of the story is the horse. The cliché of little girls loving horses isn’t for nothing. I remember, at about age 7 or 8, practicing my proper trot, canter, and gallop strides with my friends, even though I’d never been near a horse nor had any particular desire to ride; I was just going along with everyone else. There are lots of theories that all boil down to sex, in one form or another: the literal physical stimulation of the genital region, sexual gratification with an acceptable father substitute, the ability to control something powerful, proximity to obvious sexuality. For Fin, it’s a lot simpler: she has the opportunity to both spend time with the counselor she has a crush on, and ride a horse that goes faster than a slow walk. And so she gets the ride of her life:

He hoisted me onto the horse.
Then we were moving fast an it didn’t feel like flying. I sat in front and his arms around me and his thighs pinning me and my back slamming against his chest and my butt slamming against the horse and all of it hurt….And Andrew rocking and grunting behind me. Finally it ended. He helped me dismount. We were both breathing hard. I stood still in the muddy pen and felt all the sweat pour out of me. I doubted it smelled of exotic fruit. Then Andrew bent his face down toward my face. “You’re not like the other girls,” he said. “I knew that right away.” I could see his eyes, finally. They were glassy blue and strange. “Did you feel anything?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, sweating, silently counting my bruises He did not ask me to specify but wrapped his arms around me and pressed his hands into my backside I jumped away.. “My butt hurts,” I told him. “Grow up,” he said, snorting exactly like a horse. “You got just what you wanted.”

I wonder if Fin will remember the ride someday hence, either when she’s date-raped or on her wedding night. Sex isn’t supposed to be that way, at least, not any more now that women are allowed to like it too, and anyone who’s been near a tv or a radio in the past 20 years pretty much knows everything they need to know, but it often is, particularly when girls aren’t really ready but try to pretend they are. Or, when they’re virginal on their wedding nights, as they’re told they should be, and then find out it isn’t quite as wonderful as all the mystery made it seem. Sort of like the Black Night ceremony, but with more bruises. Don’t you dare want sex, and don’t you dare disappoint your husband: crazy-making.

BASS 2018: Carolyn Ferrell, “A History of China” from Ploughshares Solo 5.4

Dixie
 
Every year at the family reunion – before Cousin Monique comes to your rescue – the uncles sit back in their folding chairs and napkin-necks and ask about your father. They take you in with age-soggy eyes, as you stand before them in a floppy blouson and skirt. You look different now than you did in 1970 or 1981 or 1997 – though you still have what lyrical Aunt Vitrine calls your swan quality. Cousin Monique had wanted to ditch the reunion for the shopping mall in Auntsville; she has always been your wings and, as such, was born to ignore the uncles: in 1970, she set fire to the truck belonging to one uncle and claimed it was lightning; in 1981, she put Ex-Lax in their pound cake frosting. Now she is nowhere to be seen. There’s no reason we can’t have fun at the reunion, you told her the night before, when she picked you up at Raleigh Airport. You’re right, Monique replied, grinning in the dark, the car pulling faster and faster along the blind curves of the road. Slave food and rockheads. I don’t see why that would in any way be an obstacle to fun, cousin.

My apologies: I found this story of a family reunion very difficult to follow. Mostly, it’s the timeline: we jump from present to past, to another time in the past, back to present with a remembered past, to past remembering past. Of the many names thrown around at the reunion, and in the past, it seems three characters make up the core of the story (second-person narrator Sasha Jean, her mother Elspeth, and her father Bobby Lee), two of whom are now dead. Then there’s Cousin Monique, who doesn’t seem to have much of a role but was for me a welcomed anchor to the present.

And then, running through the story in the form of section headers, there’s the history of china. Not China: china. Dishes. Everything from Dixie and Chinet to Pfaltzgraff, Lenox, and Dansk. Ferrell’s Contributor Note indicates the story began with a long-ago job for a china company, when she was fired because she didn’t have “what it takes to succeed in that world.” I’m not sure what it takes to succeed in the china world, but other worlds benefit from the mismatch. Sometimes the china connection was obvious: Dixie at an outdoor reunion picnic makes sense, and Mom left her home in Germany to marry Bobby Lee carrying a suitcase of stolen dishes from her own mother’s kitchen, dishes that Bobby Lee broke throwing the suitcase in the trunk, in as clear a metaphor as ever written. After all, he’s the guy writing gooey letters that turn out to be fictitious when she arrives.

Not to mention what he does to Sasha Jean:

It was nothing more than a few weeks’ worth of touching. The moon came out from your Mother Goose window and stared in shock. His finger didn’t even make it in all the way. Do you like this, your father asked No, you answered, It took another five and a half weeks for him to get that through his head.
Ach, du meine Güte! Heaven, hear me.
Your mother said she would leave him, take you and your brothers back to Germany. There was no way she could stay with a child molester. A monster.
Heaven, don’t stop hearing me!
But then weeks, more than a year passed.

That’s a beautifully written passage, conveying so much. The sprinkle of German. The absence of help. And again, we see normalization: even a child molester can be minimized to avoid the substantial disruption of leaving. And another china connection: Elspeth takes Sasha Jean shopping for dishes after she finds out about the abuse, which seems to be quite some time after it happened.

The present-day plot of the story hinges on Sasha Jean’s recent inheritance of the 37 acres on which various family members reside (and provides the space for the reunion), after Bobby Lee dies. He wanted her to bulldoze everything there and build her own house, suitable for someone with her graduate school education. I have the impression he was estranged, not only from Sasha Jean, but from the whole family for various sins over the years, and this bequest makes Sasha Jean the implement by which he means to carry out his revenge. She’s reluctant to tell people she now owns the land on which they live and party. At least, I think she is. I don’t have a real feel for what’s going on in her head.

Fortunately, where I threw up my hands and dove into sentences, Jake’s post at Workshop Heretic fills in a few spots and digs deeper for the framework of the overall story. I’m grateful for his fortitude, though a bit ashamed of my own laziness. There are stories I will spend hours parsing out; this didn’t tempt me in that direction.

So I enjoyed the many beautifully written moments instead, without trying to construct the whole:

There is swimming, miles of it – and a surprise underground clearing, and giggles over mermaid nipples and moles, and promises, and some hope. Why ever resurface? Why not stay here for all time? Dandelion wine and nougat truffles. You could live like kings.
It’s tempting, but not going to happen.

Nope, heaven isn’t going to hear us. It’s such a perfect match for my mood at this time. Oh, for a place to swim!

BASS 2018: Danielle Evans, “Boys Go to Jupiter” from Sewanee Review, Fall 2017

The bikini isn’t even Claire’s thing. Before this winter, if you had said Confederate flag, Claire would have thought of high-school beach trips: rows and rows of tacky souvenir shops along the Ocean City Boardwalk, her best friend Angela muttering They know they lost, right? while Claire tried to remember which side of the Mason-Dixon line Maryland was on. The flag stuff is Jackson’s, and she’s mostly seeing Jackson to piss off Puppy. Puppy, Claire’s almost-stepmother, is legally named Poppy; Puppy is supposedly a childhood nickname stemming from a baby sister’s mispronunciation, but Claire suspects that Puppy has made the whole thing up. Puppy deemed it wasteful to pay twice as much for a direct flight in order for Claire to avoid a layover, and her father listens to Puppy now, so for the first half of her trip, Claire had to go the wrong direction—to Florida from Vermont via Detroit.

Complete story available online at Sewanee Review

A Confederate flag (more accurately, the battle flag of Gen. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, but why quibble) showed up in my Twitter feed a few weeks ago. That didn’t surprise me – I follow several journalists, and they often post stories with images of things most of my feed wouldn’t normally post – but it did surprise me to discover that the tweet was from Jake Weber. Then I saw it was in reference to his post on this story, which I hadn’t yet read. I’ve been habitually retweeting him when he posts about these stories, but…did I want to retweet this? I did, based on four layers of trust: I trust that Jake, if he uses a Confederate flag to illustrate a story, has a good story-related reason; I trust Danielle Evans, here in her third BASS, to write stories that raise thoughtful issues; I trust Roxane Gay to select stories that matter; and I trust Heidi Pitlor to publish a volume that lifts up rather than tears down. My trust was richly rewarded: this is a terrific story, and, whether he intended it or not, Jake’s inclusion of the image fit perfectly and inserted me right into the text.

I don’t often dwell on structural qualities of stories, but this one demands that I do. The technique known as in media res – starting in the middle of things – then filling in the backstory along the way, has been the standard opening for stories since the Iliad opened nine years into the Trojan war. The inciting event is what gets the rising action rising: a change in the status quo, something that generates the conflict by which the rest of the story will propel itself. Here, we open with Claire putting on the Confederate flag bikini at the urging of her boyfriend Jackson (presumably named after Stonewall rather than Andrew), and his posting the image on Facebook, without her knowledge or permission, is the inciting event.

Or is it? As we learn more about the backstory, the possibilities for inciting event open up. Maybe it’s the death of Claire’s mother, or the accident after the party, instead. Maybe it goes back to Claire and Angela as kids, growing up together in Virginia, teasing brother Aaron with a silly rhyme about “Girls go to college and get more knowledge, Boys go to Jupiter and get stupider.” Maybe the inciting incident was the Civil War, or 1787, when the newly-written Constitution stopped short of abolishing slavery in the United States. Maybe it goes back to the first slave ships in the 16th century. Maybe it goes back to the dawn of humanity, and the first person who said, “Hey, she looks different from me, she must be bad.”

In any case, the story I feared was going to be a simplistic ain’t-it-a-shame fable about the mob-like mentality of social media quickly expanded into a wide-ranging examination of many of the divisive forces we all deal with every day, right now. And that, like Jake’s tweeting of the Confederate flag, again inserts me into the story: I kept changing my mind, my off-the-cuff instinct, about what the problem was and who was wrong.

But I can’t say I wasn’t warned. The story begins with a string of what I’ll call “is-but-isn’t” markers:

▪ Puppy’s real name is Poppy, and she’s the almost-stepmother.
▪ Jackson has “in spite of his lack of farming experience, a farmer’s tan.”
▪ St. Petersburg in Florida has “relentless sunshine, sunburn weather in December.”
▪ The bikini itself is an “awkward non-gift you give someone in an awkward non-relationship.”
▪ Claire sees herself, in the bikini, as “a hot someone she is not.”
▪ When her hallmate reacted to the picture, Claire “wasn’t really aware that hallmate was a thing.”
▪ Claire’s mom refers to Angela and Aaron as Irish twins though “they are neither twins nor Irish.”
▪ Claire isn’t sure about her own family, thinking of her father’s son from a prior marriage as “not a half brother, but half-a-brother.”
▪ Claire and Angela “live across the street isn’t technically true but close enough.”
▪ Claire and Aaron sleep together once but “don’t love each other that way.”
▪ Though she grows up in Virgina, her mom is from New England and her dad is from Minnesota.

Six of these is-but-isn’ts occur within the first two pages. What we call something may not be what it is. The only thing that is what it seems to be is Claire’s red-tagged file, and after her life lived in is-but-isn’ts, she scorns its clarity.

Reordering the story not only got into the conflict faster; it affected how the story morphed as I read, which greatly heightened the aesthetic and emotional experience. It’s a great example of structure adding to effect. And it’s masterful storytelling, putting it back together in this order, to keep things changing.

The story is filled with lines, seemingly casually dropped in there, that are anything but casual. Jupiter is “unspectacular until you consider all it holds in orbit”: astronomically, 79 moons (at present; possibly more yet to be discovered), plus the entire solar system may owe its mechanism to the joint gravitational effects of Jupiter and Saturn. Grief, friendship, and a tragedy years before guide the motions of Claire. We all have some Jupiter in our lives. It’s been said by people smarter than me that slavery is the original sin for the nation, keeping us in separate orbits no matter how much it costs us.

When the hallmate, Carmen, relates her side of getting a picture of a Confederate flag slipped under her door, Claire is surprised to see fear. Why should anyone fear her? She’s not going to hurt anyone. She was pissed off, sure, but that’s all it was, not a threat. Turn it around: what if Carmen had slipped a different sort of picture under Claire’s door, would Claire have understood fear then?

And that monumental phrase, just slipped in there: “In the second grade, sometime after discovering that Angela is black, Claire writes a poem about their friendship for Martin Luther King Day.” Race is something we discover, something we learn, something we’re taught. The poem becomes an icon of interracial harmony and they are dressed up in stereotypical outfits (until someone finally objects) to recite it. This is why we can’t have nice things.

Claire and Angela, besties. Then both mothers get sick.

A year later both of their mothers are sick. It starts slow, with both of them, and then quick quick quick. With Angela’s mother it is a lump, with Claire’s a vague malaise. We should have caught it sooner, Angela and Claire say to each other, over and over again, as though their mothers’ bodies are their own. At first it seems as if, even in its cruelty, the universe is being kind, giving Claire a person to suffer through this with….
Mrs. Hall has been Claire’s second mother most of her life, and Claire fears that she will lose both her mother and her other mother, but it turns out that it is worse to lose only one, when it’s the one that counts. Claire knows as soon as she feels it the first time that there is cruelty in this sentiment, so much cruelty that it surprises her, but that doesn’t change the feeling.

Is this the inciting event, or the tragedy that follows later? Or the ensuing media storm after that tragedy? I could write another thousand words on the few paragraphs about the tragedy: what Aaron “should” have done, according to whom. Who gets the benefit of the doubt. Who is heard, who is ignored. All of which feeds into the end of the story, a town hall at the college to discuss the escalating conflict, where there are “two full rows of black students, more black people than Claire has ever seen on campus before—maybe, it occurs to her, more black people than Claire has ever seen at once in her life.” How must it feel to be two rows of black people in a room full of rows of white people?

I have no doubt some will read this and nod and think it’s vindication. Some will be outraged by what is left unsaid, what is implied; the silence at the end speaks volumes. In some stories, there are no villains; here, I see no heroes, though there are a lot of wannabes. It’s a story full of potential “teachable moments” but no one stops long enough to teach or learn. There is a difference between hate and stupidity, but at some point, isn’t there a responsibility to be less stupid? Is perpetuation of stupidity inherently hateful? In his post on the story, Jake asks an interesting question: what exactly, if anything, is Claire guilty of? Evans’ Contributor Note points out “what the desire to generously and forever forgive some people costs others.” This is a story I’m going to think about for a very long time. It’s an extraordinary story for this moment.

In my final post for the 2017 edition of BASS, I wondered about diversity. Yes, there were authors and characters of varying ethnicities, cultures, classes, and sexualities, but most of the stories supported, or at least didn’t challenge, views I already held. What about some other viewpoints? This story is something of an answer. There’s room for discussion here; there’s room for teachable moments. Or we can just go on in our orbits around Jupiter, getting stupider.

BASS 2018: Alicia Elliott, “Unearth” from Grain #44.3

Image from <em>Dawnland</em>

Image from Dawnland

They found him while laying the groundwork for a fast food restaurant. She forgot the name as soon as the officer said it – not McDonald’s, not Wendy’s. No, it was something new, something flashy and fleeting. Whatever it was, the thought made her sick. She couldn’t shake the image of a child’s tooth being pounded into beef patties, or tiny brown limbs being thrown into an industrial-size grinder. Sour fluids burned their way up her esophagus. She started to gag.
“Are you alright, ma’am?” the officer asked.
Henry’s makeshift grave was on the grounds of the old residential school. Of course it was. Of course. What was that famous Sir John A. MacDonald quote? Kill the Indian, save the man? Turned out killing the Indian saved no one. It just killed Indians.

Now I see why Jake was so determined to publish his post about this story on Columbus Day. By the way, my city is one of the increasing number of cities and states that have ceased that designation and now call the second Monday in October Indigenous Peoples Day.

The story starts and ends with food: from fast-food hamburgers to traditional Indian cornmeal mush. Elliott’s Contributor Note tells us the driving force behind the story was the idea of consumption. It’s a great comparison as Beth, a Mohawk woman, remembers her brother being removed from her home at age 5 and never returning. She herself was also removed and sent to the same residential school, but she was adopted out to a white family. By some measures, she is a success story: she had a good career as a nurse, married and had children of her own. The vacant spot in her soul only comes back to haunt her when her brother’s bones are discovered during construction.

This stealing of Indian children is something that was prevalent not only in Canada, where the story is set, but also in Australia and, yes, the US. My library will be screening the documentary film Dawnland next week, describing the process of forming the first US Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Included is the comment that the public is “largely unaware” of what happened.

The story’s climax occurs when Beth returns to her reservation, buying ingredients for the cornmeal mush. A sales clerk addresses her as Istha; Beth recognizes it as a familiar Mohawk word, but needs to be reminded of its meaning: Auntie.

Even though she’d had her hair cut and her tongue tamed, even though she’d donned pantsuits and pearls and spoke English as well as either queen she was named for, even though she let people think she was Portuguese or Italian or Greek, even though she’d left the scarred memories of her childhood in a dark, unattended corner of her mind – her people still recognized her. It was like they’d been there, waiting, all this time.

I was struck by the salesclerk’s enrollment in a Mohawk language immersion program, a hopeful sign in that it signals a new interest in preserving the language, and a tragic indication that the language is no longer spoken enough for children to learn it naturally.

I found another aspect of Elliott’s Contributor Note of great significance:

As soon as I realized Beth and her family were Mohawk, it was like the story opened up. Everything came fast. Everything made sense. What didn’t make sense – what was painful to ask myself – was why I was writing all my characters as white before this. It’s important to recognize the ways that whiteness works its way into our imaginations as Indigenous writers, the way it forces us to diminish our own people, our own stories, and elevate either whiteness itself, or a version of Indigeneity that pleases white audiences. This story helped me realize that my writing didn’t have to do either of those things. My writing could center Indigenous people, voices, and experiences instead.

~~ Alicia Elliott, Contributor Note

I’ve read this before from writers of color; they either felt they could not write their own stories, their own characters, because it just wasn’t done, or the only stories available to them, particularly as children, featured white characters and thus were all they had to use as models. I think – I hope – this is changing, as books featuring all kinds of people are now being published, and stories from many voices can be heard.

BASS 2018: Emma Cline, “Los Angeles” from Granta #139

It was only November but holiday decorations were already starting to creep into the store displays: cutouts of Santa wearing sunglasses, windows poxed with fake snow, as if cold was just another joke. It hadn’t even rained since Alice moved here, the good weather holding. Back in her hometown, it was already grim and snowy, the sun behind her mother’s house setting by 5 p.m. This new city seemed like a fine alternative, the ceaseless blue sky and bare arms, the days passing frictionless and lovely. Of course, in a few years, when the reservoirs were empty and the lawns turned brown, she’d realize that there was no such thing as unending sunshine.
The employee entrance was around the back of the store, in an alley. This was before the lawsuits, when the brand was still popular and opening new stores. They sold cheap, slutty clothes in primary colors, clothes invoking a low-level athleticism – tube socks, track shorts – as if sex was an alternative sport. Alice worked at a flagship store, which meant it was bigger and busier, on a high-visibility corner near the ocean. People tracked in sand and sometimes beach tar that the cleaners had to scrub off the floors at the end of the night.

Although several interesting moments jumped out at me, I had a hard time connecting with this story overall. It seemed to be a variety of what I call a “slacker story.” Alice isn’t really a slacker; she has a job that she puts some effort into, she takes acting classes with the goal, however naïve and perhaps vague, of being an actress. I can’t get a handle on her at all, really.

Cline’s Contributor Note even spells it out: she was exploring the idea of cost, including “the cost of our experiences, what they extract from us”, and the cost, for Alice of “her inability to fully inhabit her life.” That last phrase is quite good, and I recognize that’s what I was interpreting as slacker. But I don’t understand it, so I’m somewhat outside looking in on this one. Fortunately, Jake was able to latch on to this “not inhabiting life” theme in his usual substantive way, so I recommend his post.

What did come across for me was the layering of multiple instances of sexual exploitation of women, which Alice plays into out of… naïvete? This lack of connection to her own life? The store where she works hires salesgirls by sending photos to the home office for approval, rather than by looking at resumes and experience. I gather this is a reference to Abercrombie & Fitch, though the clothing seems quite different. She’s given free store-brand clothes to wear, but in a size too small. Men hang around the store for too long, sometimes buying enough merchandise to make the commissions worthwhile.

And then there are the panty fetishists. One of them offers Oona, a sales girl Alice befriends, $50 to hand over her underwear. Turns out there’s lots more online, and there’s good money to be made sending dirty underwear to strangers. There are indeed websites set up for this sort of thing. I can’t tell you how much I didn’t want to know that.

There were countless ads online. Oona had been right, and that night Alice lost an hour clicking through them, thinking how ludicrous people were. You press slightly on the world and it showed its odd corners, revealed its dim and helpless desires. It seemed insane at first. And then, like other jokes, it became curiously possible the more she referred to it in her own mind, the uncomfortable edges softening into something innocuous.

That process of the uncomfortable becoming innocuous is normalization, and it’s where we are right now. It’s become normal to be at war (we’ve been at war for 17 years, though you might not realize it). It’s becoming normal to hear the President use Twitter to call people names. It’s normal to read increasingly frantic reports about climate change and the devastation it will bring within our lifetimes, for some of us, as well as watching once-a-century storms roll onshore every couple of years. Normalization is all about keeping us playing with our apps (or, for some, working them ragged) while the world changes around us, while we aren’t paying attention. That’s the cost. If it’s dangerous for Alice, on a larger scale it’s catastrophic for all of us.

I’m almost embarrassed to mention this, but does the name Alice have any significance, as in Alice in Wonderland, with Oona as a guide? This seems a little too pat for me, but still, Alice does have a kind of gee-whiz-how-does-everything-work-here approach that fits.

And then there’s the final scene. It’s one of those things where we’re screaming, “No, for god’s sake, don’t get in the car with the panty guy!” and of course Alice can’t hear us. It was very “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been”, but there’s built-in soothing because the narration tells us Alice will be relating all this to Oona tomorrow, so she isn’t going to be found with a slash across her throat. But, keeping in mind what Cline said about cost: if she survives this, what will she do next, and will she survive that?

BASS 2018: Yoon Choi, “The Art of Losing” from New England Review #38.2

Palimpsest bench: The Immigrant as Palimpsest

Palimpsest bench: The Immigrant as Palimpsest

Watch the boy, she had said.
Or had she? Some things he knew for sure. His name was Han Mo-Sae. His wife was Han Young-Ja. They had been married forty years, possibly fifty. The wife would know. They had two children: Timothy and Christina. They would always be his children but they were no longer kids. He had to keep remembering that.
Tunes. He was good with tunes. He could retrieve from memory music he hadn’t heard in decades. “The Mountain Rabbit,” “Ich Liebe Dich,” Aretha Franklin’s “Operation Heartbreak,” which he had first heard in his twenties on the Armed Forces Network in Korea. He had a good singing voice. He had been Tenor 1 in the church choir; years before that, he had led off the morning exercise song in the schoolyard. These performances had given him an appetite for praise and notice, although no one, seeing the old man he had become, would know it.

Complete story available online at NER

I’m a complete sucker for an Alzheimer’s story. Build it around an immigrant family, and you know I’m going to bring in Seth Keller’s palimpsest bench doubly inscribed with Michelle Janssens Keller’s “immigrant as palimpsest” text. The two go together so perfectly: as a palimpsest layers one text over another, and the immigrant layers one life over another, the disease strips layers away, little by little.

Philosophy debates whether reality is made up of things, or ideas. For Mo-Sae, the two interplay as his memory goes in and out over the course of a few hours alone with his grandson. He’s not sure why his wife isn’t there, forgets she’s gone out for an errand. Sometimes he remembers, sometimes he forgets who the boy is. Sometimes he forgets he’s there. He looks at a coffee can full of change, and wonders why the coins are so odd: “Then he remembers that these are American coins.” The reader knows terror as the boy gets into dangerous situations – climbing over a rail on the balcony, standing at the edge of a pool – and the grandfather might forget he exists if he turns around. On returning to his apartment, “The doors keep opening and closing on identical hallways, and Mo-Sae realizes that he has no idea which is his own.” Things and ideas don’t always match up any more.

His wife, Young-Ja, becomes the second narrator of this story. In her Contributor Note, as well as her interview with Rose Whitmore at NER, author Yoon Choi explains the need for a second, more reliable narrator in a story of this kind, and how the idea developed from one character – a man with Alzheimer’s – to a story of interrelated characters and events. It’s one of the more explicit and helpful Notes, from a would-be writer’s POV, and for me, it’s always interesting to see where stories come from.

Young-Ja also provides an interesting narrative thread of her own, as she interacts with a neighbor. He started out as my “favorite overlooked character” (though I changed my mind, more later); we don’t know much about his life, but he has many interesting items in his home, including an organ. Also an older man, he’s packing to move so his offspring’s caregiving duties will be more convenient. He gives Young-Ja some of his items, including a Christmas cactus, which she ignores until it wilts. “But what she realized was that Mr. Sorenson’s gifts were not free but finicky, and came with a burden of care.” Just like children. Or parents who age inconveniently.

Jake Weber’s post at Workshop Heretic is highly informative, as he focuses on the issues involved in writing about “other” cultures within a dominant culture. Both because he’s a professional translator (of Korean, among other languages), and because he’s published stories set in “other” cultures, he has some interesting insights into the tradeoffs and decisions involved. I found his observation that there are three, maybe four cultures here – Korean, Korean-American, American-Korean, and American. Again, I think of the way Alzheimer’s, with its tendency to strip away more recent memory first, might peel off those layers of the palimpsest that is Mo-Sae.

One scene in particular resonates with me, partly because it echoes on what is familiar to me, and partly because it reveals so much about the family. Mo-Sae is asked to return to his church choir, which he left before his illness was obvious, for a Christmas performance. To Young-Ja’s surprise, he agrees. This isn’t good news for her; she’d rather they not know about his condition. Rehearsals go fine, but at the performance, during one of the solos, Mo-Sae makes his way to the platform to do his own impromptu solo:

Nothing could be read in the soloist’s expression. Perhaps that was what made him a professional: the ability to keep singing, keep pretending. And no interpretation could be made of the choir director’s turned back, from which a conducting arm continued to emerge and retreat in time. Or of the choir members who presented three rows of staunch faces.
But Mo-Sae’s face was laid bare to scrutiny. The expression on it was high-minded and earnest, but also a little coy, as though he was struggling to disguise his basking pleasure.
What was he possibly singing? In which language? To which tune? Or had he somehow learned the tenor solo on his own? He was not behind the microphone so no one could hear. But anyone could see from the childish look of surprise that came over Mo-Sae’s face that he was straining for the high notes that came forth in the soloist’s voice.
So there it was. The spectacle.
Young-Ja could do nothing but watch, to feel that there in the spotlight that she had never once sought for herself, her private miseries had become manifest.

Christina, the daughter, finally leads Mo-Sae from the choir. That’s an interesting choice. Young-Ja is almost relieved the secret is out. Almost:

Now that the secret was out, the church members treated her like one of the New Testament widows. They saw her as devoted, praiseworthy. They never asked Mo-Sae to rejoin the choir or even take part in a real conversation. Thus she was free from the burden of his reputation.
And yet, sometimes she took the opposite view. She was not really a widow so she was not really free. While Mo-Sae was alive, she could not pretend that he did not exist in some real, sometimes inconveniencing way. Others might pretend, but she had to look squarely into the question of Mo-Sae’s dignity. It was up to her to reclaim it from this point forward in a more complicated, arduous, thankless way.

Again, the inconvenience borne by family. It would be easy to judge Young-Ja, but only for someone who’s never loved someone who wasn’t always able to meet expectations of others in public.

The story takes an unexpected twist that projects a complex future, a future not at all settled by the end of the story. Choi tells us it was not the first ending she envisioned, but it was the one that became necessary to her when she started filling in the details of this family.

My nomination for interesting overlooked character would be Christina. As Jake points out in his post, giving her a more traditional Euro/American name signals a shift from Korean-American to American-Korean in the minds of her parents; her choice of husband perhaps shifts it even further. Given the ending, she’s the character whose life, past and future, I would most like to know about.

Let’s end with the beginning: the title, “The Art of Losing.” Everyone in this story is losing something. Sorenson, the neighbor, meets the loss of his home by giving away items that will live on, although to Young-Ja they are items that require care she feels too burdened to provide. The daughter Christina, leading her father away from the choir at Christmas, faces this loss with seeming dignity and responsibility, but we don’t know what she is feeling. Mo-Sae, facing ever-increasing losses multiple times a day, ends the story by huddling near the door, watching his grandson so he won’t forget he’s there. The little boy, who lost the coins that were to buy him ice cream, met his loss with a temper tantrum he’s young enough to get away with. And Young-Ja, who loses so much, barely notices, she’s so busy trying to get through the day.

The art of losing can be created in different shapes and colors, and we can all just do our best.

BASS 2018: Jamel Brinkley, “A Family” from Gulf Coast #29.2

Art by Chris Ofili

Art by Chris Ofili

Curtis Smith watched from across the street as the boy argued with Lena Johnson in front of the movie theater. She had probably bought tickets for the wrong movie. Or maybe Andre didn’t want to see any movie with his mother on a Friday night. Her expression went from pleading to irate. The boys said nothing more. With his head taking on weight, hung as though his neck couldn’t hold it, he followed as she went inside.
It was a chilly evening in November, the sky threatened by rain. Curtis blew warm breath into his cupped hands. Obedience, he thought, he could talk to the boy about that. He’s been making a list of topics they could discuss. The question of obedience was right for a boy of fifteen, when the man he would become was beginning to erupt out of him like horns. Though sometimes it was important to disobey.

There’s a thousand ways things could go wrong all through this story. Just the first paragraph had me clenching my teeth: Why is he watching them? Is he a former lover, is he Andre’s father, disappeared and now wanting back in? No, someone else is Andre’s father, so why is he making a list of topics to talk to the kid about? And we’re back to stalker. Uh oh, twelve years in prison, that doesn’t sound good…

It all turns out to be relatively benign, a past tragedy of jealousy, grief, guilt, and vehicular manslaughter. Andre’s father was Curtis’ best friend until they had a major falling out; when Marvin died in a fire, Curtis was wracked with guilt, culminating in the DUI that sent him to prison. Hey, I did say “relatively”. His interest in Lena and Andre isn’t clear – I don’t think it’s clear even to him – but it involves some combination of responsibility to Andre, finding out the details of Marvin’s death, and, maybe most importantly, finding out what Marvin said to Lena about the falling out between them, all with an overlying layer of guilt.

So much could go wrong. But it doesn’t, not because of twists of fate, but because these people work at it. And even more amazing, it keeps out of heartwarming movie-of-the-week territory.

“What makes mothers the way they are?” Andre asked one day. It was the first time he posed a question like this to Curtis, that of a boy seeking the wisdom of a man.

No, the music doesn’t play, the credits don’t roll, there’s no sense that It’s Going to Be Alright. You can see the work being done on every page, by all three characters. Sometimes it’s patience, sometimes it’s taking a risk, sometimes it’s recognizing a mistake.

In his blog post at Workshop Heretic, Jake Weber looks at the story from the sleuth point of view, inspired by the mention of Walter Mosley in the text. I particularly liked his comments on the conflict between Curtis’ masculinity and the infantilization partly forced upon him by his inability, as a black man with a prison record, to get a job.

Although the story felt full of tension – I kept waiting for something to go wrong – it manages to resolve in the key of family. I just had an email conversation with a friend, in which he mentioned some family issues but assured me he loved his family. I told him there’s a reason fiction is so often about families: it’s where everything starts, ends, and happens. Most of us start in one family, and create another, yet they are connected in ways we may or may not recognize, whether by imitation or contrast. And by the way, I have the sense that Curtis’ mom is the overlooked character in this story. I’d love to see an expansion of her story.

The family in the story is black, and while race is only explicitly mentioned a couple of times, it’s always a presence. Curtis recognizes that, if the woman he’d killed while driving drunk had been white, he’d still be serving time. What’s not said, but what this reader understands, is that if Curtis had been white, and had a hotshot lawyer, he might not have done any time at all.

I was very aware of four sentences, sprinkled throughout the piece, dealing with what a linguistics professor of mine, back in days of yore, called action/intent indices. They’re about how we can use language to accept responsibility, or distance ourselves from it:
▪ In the first instance, he’s walking off his stress, whispering Marvin’s name over the East River: “He might have also said the name of the dead woman, the one he had struck with his car….”
▪ In the second, he’s walking again, watching a woman making a phone call (again, the stalker vibe): “…she reminded him, for some reason, of the woman he had struck with his car.”
▪ The third time, he’d followed Lena into the club but hadn’t talked to her yet. “Sipping his third bourbon, he thought about how easy it had been to go from his first to his third, and beyond, on the night the girl was struck by his car.”
▪ The fourth time he’s dreaming: “.. there was the dim, gray shadow of the woman he’d hit with his car all those years ago…. That night she’d seemed to fall upon the car like a burden dropped from the sky…”

See the difference? In the first two, he struck the woman with his car. In the fourth, again he hit her with his car, though there’s some distancing in that she’d dropped out of the sky. But in the third, it’s as if the car hit the woman without him. The only real difference I see in context is that drinking distances him, removes his action and intent; it’s the car that hit her, she dropped out of the sky. Drinking isn’t mentioned anywhere else, he’s not identified as an alcoholic, and a DUI is not necessarily diagnostic. Isn’t this an extension of the so-called social lubricant function of alcohol? Who hasn’t used the excuse, “I had one too many, I didn’t mean it.” Taken to the extreme: instant absolution. Release from agency. I didn’t do it. I can’t think of a better reason to drink.

Oh and by the way: he never gets to the point of “the woman I killed.” That’s still a bridge too far.

I love that this story is part of a conversation: in his interview with Crystal Hana Kim at Apogee, Brinkley tells us: “’A Family’” is a kind of response to ‘Gold Boy, Emerald Girl’ by Yiyun Li, which itself is a response to ‘Three People’ by William Trevor.” I haven’t read either of the predecessors, so I can only imagine that these, too, are stories about other families, perhaps also bound together by shared tragedy. The story is found in the recently released collection A Lucky Man, shortlisted for the 2018 National Book Award in fiction.

Curtis nodded and listened as Andre continued talking about his future, his life of success, of accumulation and bachelorhood.

This is the most hopeful sentence in the story: the kid hasn’t lost his belief that his future is in his hands. He’s been loved enough to stay an optimist. Curtis and Lena are another story, but they manage as well. It’s a balancing act, and it’s never a sure thing, but they’ve formed a family. Brinkley’s Contributor Note explains he arrived at the title: “I wanted to emphasize all the characters together as one unit, even on the level of grammar.” He discarded anything that made it sound like this was a “degraded” family. To me, the story does a fine job of this. And families try to make it work, and allow some leeway for the times when it doesn’t.

BASS 2018: Maria Anderson, “Cougar” from Iowa Review #46.3

Our trailer sat on cinder blocks in a half-acre lot a four-cigarette drive outside of town. There wasn’t much else around except Jenny’s trailer and forest that started at the end of the lot and went on for as far as you could see, dim and impenetrable. Dad kept pink healing quartz on the porch steps, rocks he’d found in the deepest parts of the forests, back when there was still old-growth forest to be logged. He was a sad, quiet guy. Never argued with me or knocked me around like dads of guys I used to know.

Poor Cal: his world is disappearing on him, little by little. His mom disappeared years ago when he was just a baby. Now his dad disappears. And Jenny, the only adult who cares about him, is riddled with cancer, getting thinner and thinner. The town itself barely exists. Pretty soon it’ll just be Cal, and the woods. And the cougar that’s been hanging around, occasionally killing things. Like maybe Cal’s dad, though he’ll never know for sure, since the body was never found. Cal hopes it was suicide: “It was easiest to think he’d made a choice and acted on it.“ Acting on things isn’t really Cal’s strength these days.

But back to that opening paragraph: I love that subtle “guys I used to know.” Since Cal got out of high school, he doesn’t know many guys any more. His friend Blake now works on an oil rig, and Cal was thinking about joining him. It’s the one spark of initiative he shows in the entire story: he saved up some money, even took the test required. But then the cougar got his dog – his dad’s dog, actually, though it’s Cal’s now – and he got fired from the Chinese restaurant, and that spark was extinguished.

The restaurant’s an interesting place: owned by Koreans who once tried to serve real food, but discovered people wanted what they were used to. “What I decide is, people want shit, you give them shit,” says the grandmother who owns the place.

The owners of the Chinese restaurant, who were actually Korean, kept a quiet shrine on the floor in the corner of the dining room. The shrine had a picture of a sad-looking man with a dented head, a bowl of bruised clementines, and a plastic cat that waved its paw at you. An up-and-down wave. Maybe that was how Korean people waved. The cat waved at you like it was waving away all the stuff you thought about. Like it was urging you not to think, not to worry about being able to buy food or pay rent or feel like you should try to make some friends or have sex again because that was what eighteen-year-olds did.

The cat statue, though a contemporary knicknack, evolved from an Edo-era Japanese talisman called maneki neko, invitation cat or beckoning cat. The paw-down motion mimics the Japanese gesture of beckoning. Over centuries a lot of variations have developed as it’s been adopted outside Japan; it’s common in Chinese restaurants in the hopes it will bring in customers and cash. But I find it fascinating that Cal sees it as waving away thoughts he doesn’t want to have, while it’s actually a come-here motion. And, remember, there’s that other cat maybe beckoning, maybe waving away, the cougar out in the woods. Jenny reminds him, it’s just hungry. “I’m not sure an animal deserves getting shot for being hungry.” Kill or be killed, eat or be eaten, just like Jack London said. Jenny tells him he’s been feeding the cougar, and asks him to continue to do so after he’s gone.

Jake Weber has some very detailed ideas about, among other things, the symbolism of the cougar and the cat, and the world views they represent, at his blog post. We honed in on a lot of the same elements, yet in a couple of cases ended up in slightly different places. I particularly like his take on Cal’s misinterpretation of the word “Seoul”.

It’s a story of the kind of depression isolation brings on, of the inertia that can keep us from pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We leave Cal admiring the cougar. It’s the only thing he has left. I wonder if he’ll feed it. Or if he’ll make a decision and act on it too, one of these days.

BASS 2018: It’s that time again

I do not think it hyperbole to say that in 2018, the rapidly changing condition of American democracy has become an absorbing narrative of its own, one that features larger-than-life characters, nonstop conflict, breakneck pacing, and incredibly high stakes….
Fiction writers are now faced with the significant challenge of producing work that will sustain a reader’s attention amid this larger narrative. Roxane Gay is just the right guest editor for this moment. With her keen eye for tension, voice, and structure, as well as her deep understanding of the forces at work in our culture, she chose stories that reflect and refract our time, stories that exhibit mastery of pacing, surprise, and rich characterization. Here are stories that hold their own in this day and age, no small feat, and they do so with devastating realism, honesty, humor, and courage.

~~ Heidi Pitlor, Foreword

I’m a little scared to read this volume.

But that’s ok: I trust litfic writers and the editors who, unlike the bozos running the country right now, love their readers, love their characters, care about something besides themselves, and write to show a way out, an alternative to whatever hellscape they’ve created. To show us it doesn’t have to be like this.

As I was typing this, a DFW quote from 1993 – oh, how innocent we were then about darkness! – twittered across my screen: “In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.” (How innocent will we seem 25 years from now?) Yeah, that’s what I was trying to say.

Whatever else this volume may turn out to be, it represents in some way the state of American short story writing. Roxane Gay’s Introduction appears in full at lithub, but here she capsulizes her intent:

When I am reading fiction, I am not always looking for the political. First and foremost, I am looking for a good story. I am looking for beautifully crafted sentences. I am looking for a refreshing voice or perspective. I am looking for interesting, complex characters that I find myself thinking about even when I am done with the story. I am looking for the artful way any given story is conveyed, but I also love when a story has a powerful message, when a story teaches me something about the world, when a story shows me just how much I don’t know and need to know about the lives of others.

~~ Roxane Gay, Introduction

One aspect of this year’s read has me particularly eager to see what we have here: author (and my blogging buddy for several years) Jake Weber will be posting commentary on the stories on his blog, Workshop Heretic. He’ll be taking a more academic approach than I do, so for the students who find their way here when an English professor assigns them these stories as reading (yes, I see the spike in blog stats every September and January), his insights might be more fruitful. I know I hope to learn from him, since I still don’t know what a “good” story is.

But I do so love trying to figure it out.

Curtis Sittenfeld: Prep (Random House, 2005)

Ault had been my idea. I’d researched boarding schools at the public library and written away for catalogs myself. Their glossy pages showed photographs of teenagers in wool sweaters singing hymns in the chapel, gripping lacrosse sticks, intently regarding a math equation written across the chalkboard. I had traded away my family for this glossiness. I’d pretended it was about academics, but it never had been….I imiagined that if I left South Bend, I would meet a melancholy, athletic boy who liked to read as much as I did and on overcast Sundays we would take walks together wearing wool sweaters.

Lee Fiora, originally from South Bend, Indiana, transplanted to a high-end boarding school in Massachusetts, might just be the most unknowable first-person narrator I’ve ever read. Many of her comments ring so true to me, but somehow I still don’t get her; I feel a much stronger emotional connection with Gene from A Separate Peace, and was far more involved in Huey’s development as I read They Come in All Colors, even though my worldspace is much closer to Lee’s. After 400 pages of listening to her thoughts and seeing her actions, I still have no idea who she is.

A great example of this comes from the beginning of her sophomore year, about a third of the way through the book. Her English teacher has assigned an essay: write about something you care about, and take a stand. Lee writes an adequate essay about school prayer, but asterisks the title: “This is not an issue I truly care about but I believe it fulfills the assignment.” Girl could give master classes in passive aggressiveness. “You’re a cipher,” the teacher tells her, noting that other students want to be friends with her but she seems completely unengaged in anything. And, though it makes for somewhat frustrating reading, I can understand. I know what it is to feel like – and notice, that’s an interpretation, not reality – anything you say will just draw boredom, scorn, or rebuke. Thing is, she seems to be able to make friends – it’s just that they aren’t the friends she’s interested in.

Some light is shed on this at the very end of the book, when she, as an adult, recalls Martha, her roommate and best – maybe only – friend for three years

I never understood when I was at Ault why she liked me as much as I liked her. Even now, I’m still not sure. I couldn’t give back half of what she gave me, and that fact should have knocked off the balance between us, but it didn’t, and I don’t know why not. Later, after Ault, I reinvented myself – not overnight but little by little. Also had taught me everything I needed to know about attracting and alienating people, what the exact measurements ought to be of confidence and self-deprecation, humor, disclosure, inquisitiveness; even, finally, of enthusiasm. Also, Ault Had been the toughest audience I’d ever encounter, to the extent that sometimes afterward, I found winning people over disappointingly easy. If Martha and I had met when we were, say, twenty-two, it wouldn’t have been hard for me to believe she’d like me. But she had liked me before I became likable; that was the confusing part.

All the “what made me a success” stories I’ve ever read give great credence to these kinds of skills – not grades, or knowledge of any subject matter, or even popularity – and it seems Lee got a terrific education though she wasn’t able to apply it until much later.

The novel has a beads-on-a-string structure, one incident after another, with some resonance between them but not much. Within the beads there may be some tension and narrative drive, but there’s really no track on which the novel as a whole runs, other than the elapsing of four years of high school. I tried reading it as an observer novel – the story is about the other students – but that doesn’t work either, since we find out little about how they grow and change. No, the story is about Lee.

She feels awkward as a student, but in fact has fairly good social skills. She has friendly relations, if not friendships, with several students. She stumbles into a role cutting other students’ hair. She is the one called upon when a fellow student, her first-year roommate, attempts suicide. But it all seems far removed from her. Her closest relationship is with Martha, but only two extended conversations, bracketing the friendship, are revealed, making it seem like an arrangement of convenience rather than a close friendship. Even her eventual sexual relationship is something she enters into passively. Willingly, I should say, happily even, though it’s her partner who initiates and continues the relationship, who determines where and when – and, more importantly, where and when not.

Only one thing seems to really interest her: a classmate named Cross. She has an unexpected encounter with him as a freshman, then spends a couple of years thinking about him, avoiding looking like she’s paying any attention to him while focusing intently on everything he does.

One of the beads-on-a-string that interested me most was the game of Assassin, a kind of anonymous tag in which each student has to put a sticker on a target student, thus assassinating her and eliminating her from the game. Lee is really into this game (and maybe that’s why it stands out in my mind), and because she’s almost invisible to everyone, she does quite well at sneaking up on people. Eventually she finds a student, one of the boys, a challenge, and hides under a table to get close enough to tag him. Her entire motivation for his game, however, is the fantasy that she will eventually end up assassinating Cross. Her own assassination, what for anyone else would feel like a betrayal, is only a disappointment because she is out of the game before this happens.

The book is filled with great pithy observations that I might have said at some point along the way:

I always worried someone would notice me, and then when no one did, I felt lonely.
 
The interest I felt in certain guys then confused me, because it wasn’t romantic, but I wasn’t sure what else it might be. But now I know: I wanted to take up people’s time making jokes, to tease the dean in front of the entire school, to call him by a nickname. What I wanted was to be a cocky high-school boy, so fucking sure of my place in the world.
 
…nothing broke my heart like the slow death of a shared joke that had once seemed genuinely funny.
 
I believed then that if you had a good encounter with a person, it was best not to see them again for as long as possible lest you taint the previous interaction.
 
It struck me suddenly that my parents might be bewildered by me, the Ault version of me for whom it was a daring act to eat spaghetti.
 
…I had figured out early on how Aubrey liked me best: trying but not getting anything right. Or maybe not getting anything right but trying. Either way, the other person’s reaction was the only thing that ever counted to me…
 
The alcohol on his breath could have conjured up bus stations and old men with dirty clothes and bloodshot eyes, but because I was seventeen and a virgin and because I lived nine months a year on a campus of brick buildings and wooded hills and lovingly mown athletic fields, it’s conjured for me summer dances at country clubs, lives with wonderful secrets.
 
And then I realized that here, in sports, it was okay to show that something mattered to you.
 
My regret surged and billowed, as regret does in the middle of the night; everything had happened so quickly, the chance to have caused a different outcome was still so recent. … You had a window of opportunity. if you had used it, you probably would have embarrassed yourself, but it not using it, you wasted something irretrievable.

The last event of her senior year is the most emotionally packed and gripping: the school arranges for her, and a few other students not from the usual upper-crust prep school crowd, to give an individual interview to a NYT reporter. She thinks she’s just talking to an interested adult, and is shocked to see her words appear in the article as an indictment of boarding-school culture. Her first honest conversation in four years poisons her final week at a school; it’s telling that no one had any idea she felt isolated.

Although I had great sympathy for her – I once had a newspaper interview go bad, though nowhere near as bad and on a much smaller scale – I still kept thinking she was the one primarily responsible for her isolation. This, I think, is the reason for the disconnected-narrator approach: like her fellow students, I wanted to get to know her, but she, as narrator, kept me at arm’s distance.

I discovered this book through, of all things, the Odyssey. On Twitter, I follow classicist Prof. Emily Wilson, whose recent translation of Homer reveals much about other versions. She mentioned a blog post that looked at Odysseus as an unlikeable character. I went poking around that blog, written by Jaime Lustig and primarily focused on anime and manga, and found a delightful Favorite Books page. I recognized Sittenfeld’s name, since I’d recently read, and later came to more fully appreciate, her story “Gender Studies” in Pushcart. This is where I first got the idea to do a three-book “prep school” series, since I already had a recommendation for They Come in All Colors and was going to finish my planned summer reading with time to spare.

Of the novel, Jaime said, “It’s also the most perfect book about realizing that everything we thought was the fault of a world that doesn’t get us, is actually our fault and we missed so many opportunities to connect.” That’s a perfect description. And something for me to think about, as well.

Malcolm Hansen: They Come in All Colors (Atria, 2018)

I explained that the very notion of an immutable identity was a foreign concept to me. Everything was negotiable, and infinitely so. To be sure, I might have felt differently if the identity presently being forced on me conferred even a hint of admiration from my peers. But in point of fact, it was the subject of considerable derision. So I’d cast it off, and after having done so, I joined in on the fun. It came so easily to me precisely because I’d pulled that page right out of Mom’s old playbook. It was a time that she hardly cared to recall but that I remembered vividly. Ironically, she once recast herself as the person she needed to be to help me at a vulnerable moment in our lives, and now here I was doing pretty much the exact same thing. Now, come to find out, she’d had a crisis of conscience, albeit it too late to do me any good.

How does a child understand race? How does an eight-year-old understand racism when it’s part of his everyday life? How does he put together that 1) he tans easily but has wavy hair, 2) Mom is very tan and has curly hair, 3) Dad is white, and, and compute, What am I? in a world where “a person” just isn’t a good enough answer.

All Huey wanted was to go for a swim on a hot summer evening in Georgia, as he’d done in prior years. He didn’t know he’d turn the world upside down. He didn’t even know he was why the world was turned upside down, even as it flipped him on his head.

You are a bright boy, Huey. Tell me something. If the world went to hell in a handbasket tomorrow, does it make sense to you that it would all come down to this stupid little pool ?

This was not at all the book I expected it to be. Writer/reader/blogger Navidad Thelamour recommended it as follow-up to Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. I was expecting satire and prep school. As someone who seems to be somewhat tone-deaf to contemporary irony (I may be the only person who never understood what was so hilarious about Seinfeld), I have to take Navi’s word for it that this reads as satirical and ironic; to me, it’s straight-out grisly fact, unlike the wacky turns in Beatty’s novel. No, this was not the book I was expecting; the good news is, it’s a terrific book, and one I might have otherwise missed (thank you, Navi!).

Most of the story takes place in rural Georgia rather than the New York prep school that form the second timeline. In an informative interview with Thelamour, Hansen tells her he “initially underestimated the importance of the New York sections”; these were strengthened after encouragement from his editor.

It was very hard reading, both emotionally and cognitively. Emotionally, because of the confusion of 8-year-old Huey, and his later devastation as a teenager, over racism, pain which is so effectively protrayed it pervaded the air itself as I read. Cognitively, because crucial information is revealed with great subtlety. I must have doubled back to re-read in a half dozen places, thinking I’d missed something. This helps to understand the kind of confusion Huey lived in, overhearing things, being told one thing and seeing evidence for another. Although child narrators are always pretty unreliable, this one is doubly so, since truth has been obscured in an effort to protect him – until the town unobscures it for them.

I had no idea why Toby was with the people across the street. I was trying to figure it out. Aside from the obvious fact that he was colored and so were they. It felt like a betrayal – he’d known us just as long as he known any of them. He’s been with us for so, so long. And his father before him. Grandfather, too. After that, it’s got murky. Dad said people didn’t keep written accounts that far back. He made it sound like employment records were a modern invention.

And this is how we find out Dad’s people used to own Toby’s people; at least, that’s my interpretation, since very little is ever made explicit in this book. But it gets more complicated, because not only does Huey feel genuine affection for Toby, it turns out there’s a deeper connection, one that isn’t acknowledged until quite late in the book, and then is still a source of shame for the teenage Huey, still growing into his identity.

One of the many interesting subtexts of the book is that, while the racism of the South is more explicit, the racism of the North, even the sophisticated New York City, is just as deep. We begin at the fancy Claremont, a prep school eager to have Huey because he is “different, but not too different”. In other words, he counts as black for statistical purposes, but he isn’t scary-black. Huey’s mom, Peola, makes this more explicit: the only work she can find is cooking, cleaning, and child care for the rich family of a mattress mogul. We know she’s left Georgia behind, and has become more sociopolitically savvy – and more angry – as she’s found the same impediments to growth, but we don’t find out for quite a while exactly what precipitated the move.

Huey, on the other hand, is initially optimistic about his future during his first years at Claremont:

Zuk and I, on the other hand, had a different outlook. …Our job wasn’t to try to change the nature of things but to make sure we ended up on the winning side. ….I couldn’t fault Mom for being bitter about the opportunities she’d never had, but I wished that she could just be happy that all of that could be mine. We just had to let go of the past and embrace the golden future that being at a place like Claremont would ensure.
Oh. And race – well that just never seemed to come up. ….

Race never seems to come up, until it does, and then it turns out it was the elephant in the room all along.

The question of identity plays throughout. Is race a binary state? Must one be black or white? Is the “one drop rule” still in effect? The book is set in the 60s, which was before companies like 23AndMe or AncestryDNA could pin down exactly who has what blood. Turns out, white supremacists are using these tests to prove their purity, and have interesting ways ways of discounting results they don’t like. Huey has only what his parents tell him, what the people of Akersburg, GA tell him, and later, what his “friend” Ariel Zukowski tells him.

One side note: in Fannie Hurst’s 1933 novel Imitation of Life, and the 1934 film of the same title, “Peola” was the name of the light-skinned daughter who tried to pass (that was the word for it then) as white, leaving her black mother behind, with tragic results. There’s a reference to this in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye by the character Pecola, a dark black girl who longs for whiteness, particularly blue eyes. In the film, the part of Peola was played by Fredi Washington, a biracial actress who refused to pass though her career suffered as a result. To travel a little further down the rabbit hole, when the film was remade in 1959, the character was renamed Sarah Jane and was played by Susan Kohner, generally considered “white” (whatever that means) though her mother was a Mexican-American actress. Whether Hansen deliberately incorporated this, I can’t be sure, but it fits so well I think he must have.

In one intense and pivotal scene late in the book, Peola tries to explain to Huey why he belongs at Claremont. She uses a metaphor new to me, one that I found immensely powerful as a response to the “hey, I never owned any slaves so don’t take it out on me” reaction to affirmative action:

It’s like one man steals a house from another man, and we say, fine. The authorities find the man guilty and send him to jail, and we say justice is served. But his son gets to keep the house. Okay? In short order, the son has a child and decides that he wants a second house. Except now, the man who’s had his house stolen finds himself competing for a home loan with guess who – the thief’s son. Only the thief’s son has a house to offer up as collateral against a second mortgage, and the man with whom he’s competing for the loan does not. Now, the banker doesn’t care one way or another about that first home. He only cares about getting his money back. And after all, the son didn’t steal the house that he lives in. His father did. So why should he be penalized unfairly? We all know that you can’t punish the son for the sins of the father. Which is why he gets to live in that first house. But I’ll be damned if he gets to use it to bootstrap his second home when there is still a man out there who has been robbed of his fair chance at his first!

Writing a book through the eyes of a child is tricky business. Sometimes Huey seems to be sophisticated beyond his years, while he remains clueless – perhaps willfully so – about race. Why doesn’t Mom ever come to the pool to see him swim? Why does Dad take him for ice cream so early in the morning, before anyone else is in the store? Who are these people on the bus, why are they here, what is SNCC, why do they want ice cream at that parlor so bad, why can’t they just go somewhere else? What really happened to Mr. Goolsbey’s shop, and what happened to Toby? I get the sense these are questions he isn’t sure he wants answered, adding to his cluelessness. Then he writes a poem, quite sophisticated for an eight year old, that evokes “Raisin in the Sun” – and reminded me that Plath’s poem, “Daddy”, was used as an epigraph – and shows why he might be selected for Claremont a few years later.

Yes, it’s hard to read. I kept thinking it reminded me a bit of my experience of reading Light in August several years ago during another hot, racist summer. But it’s very worth reading. I hope it finds the audience it deserves, the audience that deserves, that needs, it.

John Knowles: A Separate Peace (Harville Secker, 1959)

I went back to the Devon School not long ago, and found it looking oddly newer than when I was a student there fifteen years before. It seemed more sedate than I remembered it, more perpendicular and strait-laced, with narrower windows and shinier woodwork, as though a coat of varnish had been put over everything for better preservation. But, of course, fifteen years before there had been a war going on. Perhaps the school wasn’t as well kept up in those days; perhaps varnish, along with everything else, had gone to war.

I’ve always had an unexpected fondness for prep-school novels and movies. No, I didn’t go to prep school or boarding school or anything but plain old public school, yet I find the concentrated atmosphere of these stories works for me.

I have a couple of contemporary examples in the works for the next weeks, so I thought I’d take another look at the granddaddy of them all. Do kids still read this? It was on my summer reading lists throughout school; I think I finally read it in my teens, probably in the late 60s – yes, I read some of the books on the summer reading list, mostly the ones having to do with death. But now that I’ve re-read it, I don’t think I finished it; I think I stopped after the tree incident, because I don’t remember the Winter Carnival, or Leper’s “escape”, or really much of the book at all.

I certainly don’t remember it as gay. And yeah, now, in 2018, it reads very repressed-and-unspoken gay, in a way it couldn’t have read to me in 1968. Putting aside Gene’s repressed sexuality, it’s a novel about jealousy, about wanting what someone else has, about the grass being greener and all those typical teenage themes that last into adulthood. Competition, the foundational drive. Ethical failure, the engine of so much modern literature. Guilt, the universal emotion.

It’s pretty much a classic structure: the tree scene, far from being the end of the book, is merely the inciting incident upon which complications pile up. A dramatic climax – second cousin to a courtroom scene – uses recollection of hazy memories to create a violence that explodes by accident. The denouement that follows includes a major shift in tone, even in the face of one final dramatic reveal. And I get the sense that we’re never really returned to the present, from where the novel started as a recollection. The past is always present, for many of us, even 15 years on.

One of the things I noticed is that all of Finny’s vaunted athletic trophies, the prizes on which his status in Gene’s eyes as a sports superhero, seem to be of the “most improved” variety. It’s expressly stated that he doesn’t have any records in his sports, but he has awards for sportsmanship and cooperation and effort. I get the impression Finny isn’t really as great an athlete as everyone thinks he is. Gene’s jealousy, sad under any circumstances, becomes sadder when based on a mirage. Is it possible to see Finny at all – or is he all image, all energy, all beholder-created impression?

It’s also very much a novel rooted in WWII. The “separate peace” metaphor has its reference in a move seen as a betrayal. During WWI, Russia signed a separate peace accord with Germany, removing itself from the Tripartite Pact. That there was a change in regime – from Czar Nicholas II to Bolshevik rule – tempered the outrage somewhat, but during WWII fears of another reversal, of Russia pursuing a separate peace with Germany in spite of the German betrayal, emerged in a more complex situation.

But the separate peace of the novel has to do with less global matters. After Finny breaks his leg, he decides the war is fake news, sort of a Wag the Dog situation. The boys are facing the draft by the following summer, and have the question of enlistment before them at all times, a question that creates excitement and adventure, yes, but also anxiety concealed out of shame. By creating a separate peace on his school campus, they feel some reprieve from the dramatic induction into adulthood. But for Finny, it means something else: because of his injury, he’s ineligible for the military, so it’s easier for him to not feel left out by ignoring it all.

Do kids reading it now have the understanding of what the war meant, what the draft meant? I first read the novel during Vietnam, a very different war with very different home fires burning. And now, kids would be reading it in yet another war time: a war time almost as ephemeral as Finny’s peace mirage. Very few people, outside of military families and news hounds, are even aware that we’ve been at war for 15 years, that we’re currently involved in a half dozen nasty conflicts with no clear sides and plenty of ambiguous, and not-so-ambiguous, collateral damage. Is it possible to read the book the same way now as then? Is it any wonder it’s easier to read it as a gay novel, than to find a way to put oneself in a mindset of a prior historical setting?

And again, context, my obsession over the past year, becomes central to reading. Does context alter the book, or is that a reader flaw? Can we be aware of the original authorial intent, and still see new ways old messages reveal themselves? Haven’t relationships like Gene and Finny’s always existed – and haven’t they always been the same, yet always current?

So I’ll leave the marble stairs and oak panelling and musty rooms of Devon for a prep school of the 60s, and one of the 21st century; will I find the same thing, in different light?

Erik Spiekermann & E. M. Ginger: Stop Stealing Sheep & find out how type works (Adobe, 2003)

In 1936, Frederic Goudy was in New York City to receive an award for excellence in type design. Upon accepting a certificate, he took one look at it and declared that “Anyone who would letterspace black letter would steal sheep.” This was an uncomfortable moment for the man sitting in the audience who had hand lettered the award certificate. Mr. Goudy later apologized profusely, claiming that he said that about everything.

Professionals in all trades, whether they be dentists, carpenters, or nuclear scientists, communicate in languages that seem secretive and incomprehensible to outsiders; type designers are no exception. Typographic terminology sounds cryptic enough to put off anyone but the most hard-nosed typomaniac. The aim of this book is to clarify the language of typography for people who want to communicate more effectively with type.

I’ve always been interested in fonts and typefaces (there is a difference, but I can never remember what it is) but I’ve never studied the details. Oh, I know what ascenders and descenders are, and I have some idea of what’s considered modern and what’s considered humanist, and in connection with manuscripts I’ve become a bit familiar with calligraphic scripts, but I’ve always wanted to know more details, take a more structured approach, understand the difference between Times New Roman and the dozens of look-alikes Word offers.

This book doesn’t really offer that kind of detail, but it was fun anyway.

It’s not the sort of book you sit down to read, but it’s not really a reference work either. It’s lived in my duffel and accompanied me on appointments and errands and bus rides, where I might have five or ten minutes. Reading text, fiction or non, in that way gets disorienting, and interferes with the flow of stories and ideas, but this book was ideally suited, since each double-layout page is a single unit. On the left is a full-page example, maybe an ad or a document or a form, and on the right is a brief description, a sidebar with details, and individual examples of various fonts.

It’s a very well-produced book. Though it’s small – trade paperback, about 179 pages – it’s unusually heavy because the paper is a heavy glossy weight. The illustrations are often in four color, always in two color. I got the 2nd edition (used), published in 2003, because it was a lot – a LOT – cheaper than the 3rd edition from 2013; there were some throwbacks (PostScript, dot matrix printers, CRTs were just fading from the scene) but I’m not particularly interested in those details anyway.

As a quick-fix amusement, it was a success. I still want to learn more about fonts, how they’re designed, the different effects created by small differences that I can’t even see, what makes a font “friendly” or “ominous”; I can see the difference, but have more trouble quantifying exactly how it’s created. But I’ll need another book for that. That’s ok, this one was perfect for bus reading.

Jesmyn Ward, ed.: The Fire This Time (Scribner, 2016)

It was then that I knew I wanted to call on some of the great thinkers and extraordinary voices of my generation to help me puzzle this out. I knew that a black boy who lives in the hilly deserts of California, who likes to get high with his friends on the weekend and who freezes in a prickly sweat whenever he sees blue lights in his rearview, would need a book like this. A book that would reckon with the fire of rage and despair and fierce, protective love currently sweeping through the streets and campuses of America. A book that would gather new voices in one place, in a lasting, physical form, and provide a forum for those writers to dissent, to call to account, to witness, to reckon. A book that a girl in rural Missouri could pick up at her local library and, while reading, encounter a voice that hushed her fears. In these pages she would find a wise aunt, a more present mother, who saw her terror and despair threading their fingers through her hair, and would comfort her. We want to tell her this: You matter. I love you. Please don’t forget it.

Introduction – Jesmyn Ward

In the months after Trayvon Martin’s murder and the trial that excused it, Jesmyn Ward turned to words. In particular, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time reminded her that, no matter what the world thinks, she had value. She felt it important, just as important now and maybe more so, that the message was conveyed, so she conceived this new anthology subtitled “A New Generation Speaks about Race”. She envisioned the work as consisting of three parts: past, present, future. But the work that came back to her was heavily weighted in the past and present. She interprets that, in part, as a reaction to the American reluctance to truly acknowledge the racist roots of our country, to see how the present is connected to the past. Too many times, there’s a tendency to say, Slavery ended in 1865, the Civil Rights Act went into effect in 1964, what more do you want? Plenty.

One of the most shocking essays (to someone who wears white privilege) is “Black and Blue” from Garnette Cadogan. He was born in Jamaica, and developed a fondness for long walks early in life. It wasn’t always easy to navigate the neighborhoods of Kingston – wearing the wrong color in the wrong place could get him killed – but he adapted. When in 1996 he moved to New Orleans at 18 for college, he was warned about the dangerous neighborhood, and laughed it off; he knew how to adapt. “What no one had told me was that I was the one who would be considered a threat.” And there follows the collection of incidents, familiar to us from the stories we see on Twitter every day, of being accused, handcuffed, questioned, searched, and otherwise harassed by police for Walking While Black. I don’t know why it surprised me.

But it did. This was one of the most powerful recitals of this particular theme, possibly because he had imagined himself as a new Tom Sawyer exploring the Mississippi on foot; it didn’t work out that way. And it wasn’t just New Orleans; this continued when he moved to New York, and hoped to follow in the footsteps of Whitman, “descend to the pavements, merge with the crowd, and gaze with them.” I kept thinking, he’s lucky he survived. Maybe I can never truly appreciate how dangerous Walking While Black can be. Is this Freedom?

Emily Raboteau continues the legal jeopardy theme in “Know Your Rights!” by photographing and cataloguing a series of murals in New York realistically depicting street scenes of black people being arrested, cuffed, frisked, or questioned by police. The captions are stark: “Demand a lawyer and don’t say anything until you get one.” “You have a right to observe and film police actions.” Set against this is the Ben Sargent cartoon titled “Two Americas”, featuring a white boy going out to play and being advised by mom to take his jacket, and a black boy getting instructions “so intricate, leery, and vexed a warning that her words obstruct the exit”: “Keep your hands in sight at all times, don’t make any sudden moves, don’t mouth off, don’t wear a hoodie…” By the way, the black boy still has to worry about neighborhood crime. He just has to worry about the police as well.

One of the articles from the Legacy section is Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ paean to Phillis Wheatley, kidnapped from Africa as a child in the 18th century and sold here to the Boston family of Susannah Wheatley. She learned to read and write, and became the first published African American poet. The Stanford mooc on Pre-Modern Women Poets included a unit on her work. I’m guessing the course used the Margaretta Matilda Odell’s biography as a guide, but Jeffers discovers this work may be far less authoritative than it claims. It’s a fascinating look at how a black woman’s life story might be stolen.

I had expected this book to be pretty depressing, and of course it’s infuriating that such injustice is excused every day. But it’s also quite beautiful, particularly in the Legacy portion: a look at Baldwin’s house in France, at the black bodies buried beneath an intersection in New Hampshire or Rhode Island. The final message is one of Jubilee: we have a right to be here. I’ve never been asked to defend my place. I wonder if I could. I wonder why some people have to, and some don’t.

A comfort? I can see that. I remember, in some of my darkest times, not wanting cheer and hope, but just wanting to know I’m not the only one who feels pain. This book gives Ward’s imagined boy in California, the girl in Missouri, the comfort of good company. It’s not justice, not by a long shot, that’s still work we need to do; but maybe it’s enough to get through one lonely, sad night.

Anis Shivani: Anatolia and Other Stories (Black Lawrence Press, 2009)

Over the next hour, as the natural light declined further, she began to see the painting in all sorts of ways forbidden to her before. It struck her for the first time that paintings ought to be appreciated in their natural habitats for some period of time, then let go of, consigned to the mists of time and memory …

As I’ve been completing and blogging the reading list I compiled a couple of months ago, I’ve been listing the reasons I chose to read each book. I picked this one for an odd reason: my blogging buddy Jake, a big fan of some of Shivani’s essays, didn’t like it. Jake and I often agree on stories, but we just as often disagree, and that’s the case here: with a couple of exceptions, I greatly enjoyed the stories in this collection. I’m pretty sure I didn’t get everything I could have out of it, but, like the painting that changes as the natural light shifts, I suspect I’ll be recalling some of them quite frequently.

I can easily see why Jake takes issue with some of the stories. Often, the plot seems like a scaffold, existing only to give a place for characters to voice their opinions – voice, not discuss, since there’s rarely any interaction. It’s just that this doesn’t bother me at all. I’m also not concerned that Shivani’s personal views are front and center in most of the stories. First, I’m not that familiar with him, beyond his anti-workshop essay (which was in one of the first Pushcarts I blogged, but before I blogged anything but fiction) and a rather startling fairly recent article in Salon, voicing his longstanding argument against identity politics.

I’m not qualified to assess either opinion, but I find it interesting in the light of the Salon article that so many of the characters in the stories find it impossible to assimilate into the dominant culture, not because they aren’t willing, but because they simply aren’t accepted. The most stark occurrence of this is in “Manzanar”, where an interned American of Japanese descent during WWII speaks quite bluntly of the problem: “The wind groans a dirge for time lost to fatal error. How was it we thought we could become fully American, one hundred percent American, unassailably patriotic American, and get away with the illusion for so long?” This echoed for me the line spoken by Mr. Dussel in The Diary of Anne Frank: “I always thought of myself as Dutch.”

I encountered a review of the book that complained about the characters being “stuck”, of the lack of change in the stories. I can’t find that review now, however; I don’t think I made it up or dreamed it, since I doubt it would have occurred to me, but once I thought about it, I realized this was indeed the case in all but a couple of the pieces. This goes along with the “plot is a structure to hang philosophizing on” approach, I think, and again, while it’s probably a valid complaint, it’s just not something that bothers me.

Nowhere is this lack of change more prominent than in “Conservation”, one of my favorite stories. A conservator at a small Boston museum goes to great lengths to smuggle a painting out and take it home with her, in order to rescue it from the restoration plans of her superior to remove the imperfections that were not from accumulated damage, but were part of the original work: “Why should a lowly latter-day conservator go against the master’s intentions and try to cure the painting of its alleged defects by removing all hint of anomaly and conflict from the surface of the painting?” The brought to mind the enormously complex Japanese concept of wabi, an affinity for a natural state rather than artificial perfection, which I have corrupted to “the flaw that perfects”.

I know so little about art, but the recent History of Architecture mooc I took acquainted me with different views on building preservation: whether, in view of the frequent changes to buildings in ancient times, it makes sense to lock down a building’s structure by declaring it a historic landmark, whether recreating a city after the destruction of war erases something important, and the unusual point of view of Jorge Otero-Pailos, an artist who removed and preserved years of soot from various structures.

But in the end, the smuggler changes her mind and returns the painting, and it is as if nothing has happened. The stuffy European decides to go back to Europe where his stuffiness will be appreciated, and the director continues her plans to make the museum more appealing to a modern audience to increase funding. The lack of change was perhaps the point; there was that moment of seeing the painting change in the fading light, a moment of rash courage that existed, then was retracted. And, more important to me than any narrative drive, I got something of an education in attitudes towards art conservation. I’m never happier than when a story teaches me something, plot or no plot.

The most Shivanian (can that be a word, please?) story is “Go Sell It On The Mountain”, a takedown of Bread Loaf-style writing conferences powered and paid for by hope and vanity. I happen to know someone who went to a session, under the same conditions as the narrator (you pay your couple of grand, you get to workshop with other hopefuls and breathe the air of Success); he was quite enthusiastic about the experience, and I adored the story he wrote as a result (however, I was in the throes of a major crush at the time, so my judgment may be skewed). The Director of the fictional contest, seen as sort of the Archbishop of American Writing Programs, has a mission: he is, very much like the popularity-oriented art curator in “Conservation”,

… bent on cleaning up the filth and decadence in American writing, of which tidying up the Conference was a necessary though minor component. Professionalisation, standardisation, systematization , these were his obsessions, from the administering of contests to the editing of manuscripts, and his aim was no lower than rigorous enforcement of the rule of law to the three hundred and fifty writing programs in the country, to the extent his influence had any meaning. “The quirky personal element has been to romanticized. I want to establish the business of writing” …

I know very little about MFA programs or literary publishing, but I can tell you what happened when moocs got standardized by best-practices teams and slick instructional design departments. The best ones, to me, were put together with spit and glue back in the early days, by professors who felt a mission to share their excitement about their field. Their innovations – live sessions with call-in and tweet-in participation, 25-minute videos thoroughly exploring a single thought, message boards that encouraged students to connect and teach each other – have all been discarded as ineffective and inefficient in favor of the profitable development of mcMoocs and marketing them as products.

Oddly, I didn’t connect much with the Bread Loaf story, perhaps because it’s been redone several times. That’s a little unfair, like complaining that Shakespeare wrote in clichés. But here’s where I get why pontificating fiction is less popular now: whereas the story’s heart was to show the arrogance of the Director against the desperate hope of the newbie, with a couple of supporting characters for ballast (those in the know must’ve had a lot of fun solving the Roman à clef aspects), it felt like everyone was operating by a script not their own. I compare this to something like Elizabeth Tallent’s “Narrator” which has characters operating by their own beacons, not as participants in a morality play, and I felt the difference.

Another story that showed a similar locked-in quality was “Profession”. It was more than anything else an outline of different approaches to literary education, by way of a husband and wife at the University of Wisconsin. He, of “common sense” and the traditional approach to literature, is fading into the woodwork, while she, offering talks on the hermeneutics of a Mexican restaurant menu (forgive me, but I’d love to hear this), has become a superstar. She lives across campus, and he visits on weekends; they’ve just adopted a Vietnamese orphan, and he’s trying to figure out how to be a father while she’s just breezing along doing the literary equivalent of circus tricks. “Without compromise, there was no family,” he notes. But there’s compromise and there’s absurdity.

One of the things that pricked up my ears on this story was his frequent descriptions of her as “petite.” I wonder if he’s trying to make her smaller, or is trying to convince himself she is not the Sun and he does not have to revolve around her. Or if he’s just hung up on weight.

Another moment that stopped me in my tracks was a look at his despair: “Arthur couldn’t even pretend that teaching mattered. In four decades, had he been able to sway a single student to his point of view?” Is that the point of teaching, or is teaching about showing students how to find their own point of view, how to distinguish between wheat and chaff, how to discover what they value most versus least? Are we seeing two extremes here, with the golden mean – the compromise – lost in the egos and struggle for power in an academic system where, as many have said, the stakes are so small?

“Texas” also is, in my view, a plotless story that nevertheless has some interesting undercurrents. It consists of the musings of Amy, babysitter to a high-flying Malaysian oil engineer’s family. The interesting detail is that the engineer works at Enron, obviously before the fall (the story was published in 2006, well after the shit hit the fan). “Amy felt second-class in her own country.” That’s the double-bind of the immigrant, isn’t it: if you’re a highly trained engineer or doctor or software designer, you’re taking jobs away from Americans, but if you’re untrained, you’re not good enough to be here.

“Gypsy” gives another example of the difficulty of living among yet apart. A young girl from a Rom family is about to be promised into marriage, and she’s not happy about it. She has non-Rom friends, and wants to go to school, have a career, but her father, horribly old in his 30s, is counting on her bride price to settle a debt. As it happens, she goes through with it, but her husband comes to an unexpected early end, so she gets to pick up her life after all. “I’ve shed many generations of weight off my frail shoulders, without having betrayed anyone.” A little deus-ex-machina, but it’s an engrossing story, one of the few that has a relatively genuine progression of events. I ended up caring about her, whereas most of the other characters in the book were exemplars rather than people to me.

I found “Repatriation” to be interesting for only one reason: context. I’ve been obsessed with context lately, since most of the books in my summer reading project are from Before and now we are in the After (if you don’t know Before or After what, well, you haven’t been paying attention). I’m sure when Shivani wrote this story in 2006, it was a bizarre little apocalyptic tale about kicking brown and black people out of America, not something that was actually happening.

I found the title story to be pleasantly frustrating. Because of my unfamiliarity with the norms and vocabulary of the 17th century Ottoman empire, it was a little difficult to follow, but basically concerned a Jewish merchant in some kind of legal trouble; he expected it would go away, but the powers that be had other ideas, and while it didn’t go as badly for him as it could have, neither did it go away. What interested me were two moments towards the end of the story: first, a casual conversation turns into an invitation to a Muslim gathering of some sort. “I’m a Jew,” he replies with a sort of amused scorn. His interlocutor indicates surprise; he’s not wearing a kipah, but our merchant doesn’t think that’s so unusual at all. He’d even bought a ring, thinking he might convert to Islam and marry a colleague’s daughter. But given the legal outcome (which I’m quite hazy on), he reconsiders: “Perhaps there was beauty after all in keeping things separate, not letting odd combinations mix and match at will.” I just ran into a similar sentiment in The Sellout, with a farming metaphor to emphasize the different kinds of conditions various species might need, and compared it to HBCUs and single-sex schools, both of which have shown some good results.

The story becomes chilling in the last paragraph, when he declares, “What had happened to him was an individual incident with no universal meaning.” I find it odd a Jew would think such a thing, but I suppose it had been a few centuries since the expulsions from Spain and England, and it seems the restrictions of 15th century Italy might not be that much of a factor in his consciousness. But just wait, dear man, until the 20th century. And the 21st.

The final story, “Tehran”, seemed very different to me. It’s a reconstruction, in fragmented leaps, of a suicide bombing at a café. The bomber turns out to be, oh dear, a frustrated writer whose work, while brilliant, has been censored. The innocent people he takes with him are people he would probably like: a caring schoolteacher trying to help women continue their education in spite of restrictions, and a young religious court official trying to reconcile his beliefs, and the poetry he loves, with post-Revolutionary Iran. It’s a beautiful, sad story, and a tragic reminder that no one has suffered more from terrorism and Islamic extremism than Muslims.

I’m very glad I read this collection. I wish this post did it justice; I find I have so much to say – and I’ve left out some things – I just haven’t been able to organize it properly. But obscurity has its benefits; when I make a fool of myself, the witnesses are few. It’s full of things to think about, and, like the painting, I suspect I will see it differently as time passes. I hope it will be with more wisdom and understanding.