BASS 2016: Just What I Needed Right Now

 
 
Querida reader, ultimately I hope these stories do for you what they’ve done for me – at the very least I pray they offer you an opportunity for communion. A chance to listen, if not to the parrots of our world, then to some other lone voice struggling to be heard against the great silence.

~~ Junot Díaz, Introduction, BASS 2016

If there was ever a particular anthology I needed at a particular time, this was it.

Did I like it because I wanted to like it? I won’t rule this out. In fact, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. “Oh, you just want to like it because it’s multicultural” isn’t an insult. Why isn’t the desire to embrace different voices a good thing, something to be celebrated? I’ve enjoyed plenty of nice-suburban-white-lady-struggles-with-family-issues stories. I give middle-aged-white-guy-trapped-in-marriage-and-job stories the benefit of the doubt. And we all know there’s plenty of rich-white-city-folk-upset-about-something-they-did-to-themselves fiction. Why shouldn’t I, when starting a volume guest edited by a writer known for his promotion of diversity, look forward to something different? Why shouldn’t we all grab the opportunity to see the world through a different set of eyes, as much as we can?

Yes, I want to fight back against the global tide of nationalism in general, and in particular against the terrifying brand of neo-Nazi fundamentalist Christian white supremacy that’s becoming more entrenched in America every day since Nov. 9. But I also genuinely want to know more about what it’s like to be someone who isn’t me, and that includes differences in era, age, gender orientation, race, nationality, religion, language, class, aspirations, and fears. What does it mean to be a young woman, born in Ethiopia but brought to the US as an infant, to connect with her family there? How does life look to a transgender woman in Japan who confronts a figure from her adolescence? Who made these clothes I’m wearing, what is her life like, and what was she thinking about? What was it like during the Depression in America? Is there any way to see midwestern funeral thieves through the eyes of compassion? And invariably, though our lives may differ in major ways, there is some point of commonality to be found. I can learn something from all of them.

These are fictional people, sure, but the more we imagine, maybe the more we are open to the unfamiliar when we encounter it, and the less it frightens us. And by the way, I’d love to read some stories about neo-Nazi fundamentalist Christian white supremacists who struggle with decisions and consequence, if anyone out there writes some that aren’t merely megaphones for hate and power. I’m sure there’s insight to be found there, too.

I can’t begin to pick three favorites from this anthology; I’d say more than half of the stories were favorites in very different ways, and half of the rest were very close runners-up. So I’ll instead present my Sloopies, awards for my own private categories:

Story that made me change my epitaph: “The Great Silence” by Ted Chiang.

Story that’s come back to me every day since I read it: “The Politics of the Quotidian” by Caille Millner.

Story that told the truth underneath the truth: “Garments” by Tahmima Anam;
tie: “Ravalushun” by Mohammed Naseehu Ali.

Story that brought back a memory and made me cry: “Secret Stream” by Héctor Tobar.

Story that made me believe we can find compassion for everyone if we look closely enough: “Treasure State” by Smith Henderson.

Story that proved again the value of putting just a little effort into understanding what the author was doing: “For the God of Love, For the Love of God” by Lauren Groff.

Story of harsh reality told with lyric beauty: “On This Side” by Yuko Sakata.

Story of wild imagination: “The Bears” by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum.

Story of everyday simplicity: “The Suitcase” by Meron Hadero.

Story that hit the perfect end note: “Williamsburg Bridge” by John Edgar Wideman.

We’ve all just about come through an annus horribilis that may wring its wretchedness out on us for years to come. I’m grateful for the moments of light I’ve been fortunate to encounter along the way. BASS 2016 was one of them.

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BASS 2016: John Edgar Wideman, “Williamsburg Bridge” from Harper’s, Nov. 2015

So here I am, determined to jump, telling myself, telling you, that I’m certain. Then what’s the fool waiting for? it’s fair for you to ask. In my defense I’ll say I’m aware that my desire to be certain is an old-fashioned desire, “certain” an obsolete word in a world where I’m able only to approximate, at best, the color of a bridge I’ve crossed thousands of times, walked yesterday, today, a world where the smartest people acknowledge an uncertainty principle and run things accordingly and own just about everything and make fools of the vast majority of the rest of us not as smart, not willing to endure lives without certain certainties. I don’t wish to be a victim, a complete dupe, and must hedge my bets, understand that certainty is always relative, and not a very kind, generous, loving relative I can trust. Which is to say, or rather to admit, that although I’m sure I’m up here and sure this edge is where I wish to be and sure of what I intend to do next, to be really certain, or as close to certain as you or I will ever get, certainty won’t come till after the instant I let go.

~~ Complete story available online at Harpers’s

I’ve always wondered why so many suicides pause on the ledge, or the bridge, or with a gun to their head. Then again, I’ve never watched someone commit suicide, unless you count the long, slow ways we all do to one degree or another. Maybe it’s just in movies and TV shows that this happens. Because once you decide, wouldn’t you want to get it done as quickly as possible? Wideman’s narrator recognizes the simple truth that certainty has different meanings on firm ground versus on the ledge.

It’s not a traditional story. Even saying it’s a stream of consciousness work doesn’t really cover it, because it seems pretty deliberately written, as though to evoke SOC without actually executing it. Topics loop from Sonny Rollins playing his sax on the Williamsburg Bridge during a long hiatus in his musical career, to the narrator’s family, to issues of race, to the women in his life.

There’s a lot of language play: the word “color” appears more than you’d expect it to (guest editor Junot Díaz calls it “a meditation on the extraordinary resilience of ordinary black lives in the American Century,” a resilience that is now under more stress than ever). Posterity and Pentecost are woven together, bringing in Habakkuk 1:3-4, a most pertinent Bible verse for this time if I’ve ever heard one. This story was written in 2015, remember. But not everyone was caught by surprise on Nov. 9, 2016.

On the other hand, no doubt color does matter. My brownish skin, gift of the colored man my mother married, confers added protection against sunburn in tropical climates and a higher degree of social acceptance generally in some nations or regions or communities within nations or regions where people more or less my color are the dominant majority. My color also produces in many people of other colors an adverse reaction hardwired. Thus color keeps me on my toes. Danger and treachery never far removed from any person’s life regardless of color, but in my case danger and treachery are palpable, everyday presences. Unpleasant surprises life inflicts. No surprise at all. Color says, smiling, Told you so.

I was trying to make some sense of this, looking for patterns or structure, and came up blank. So I did the easy stuff first, and went looking for images of Sonny Rollins on the Williamsburg Bridge with his sax. Then I went looking for his music, and it struck me, if ridiculously late: “bridge” is a musical term. It’s that piece in a song that you sit through waiting for the familiar verses and chorus to come back. Some people will tell you it needs to be put in a particular place, but I’ve seen a lot of opinions on that, including the “put it where you need to break the monotony”. I found lots of rules on various songwriting sites, rules that take on new meaning in the context of the story: Create an opposite mode to the chorus; move to a new key; let the lyrics deepen the meaning of the song; use the final chords to connect smoothly with what follows. Hmmm.

However, there is another approach. I asked my mooc friend Mark Snyder, a musician and composer, for his definition of a musical bridge. Among other things, he said: ” Watch for the surprise twist! That’ll be the bridge,” an idea that fits the story in at least three ways I can think of: the surprise twist to this guy’s life, the surprise twists within the substance of the looping narrative itself, and the surprise twist in the final paragraph. Theme as structure.

Then Mark told me a story about Walt Parazaider, saxophonist with the jazz/pop/rock band Chicago: he was asked to write a bridge in A flat, without any idea of what the song surrounding it was. It’s part of “Just You and Me” (about the 2:10 mark) and works just fine, so maybe the rules aren’t that important. Bridge as improvisation, a little something different, unexpected, to get from one round of you-know-how-this-goes to the other. I think this perhaps contrasts with the story, as the storybridge is intimately familiar with what came before, if not what came after.

And then there’s the last paragraph of the story. I’m tempted to quote it, but that wouldn’t be fair; the story is online, the link’s above, go read it. Talk about a surprise twist: is this the story we thought it was, or did we just go metafiction? Maybe the bridge comes at the end, an idea loaded with meaning in this context.

The bad news, and the good news, in one package: Everything we read reveals our biases. And through that knowledge, we can tame them. Or not: it’s a choice. I’m unfamiliar with Wideman’s work (why is that, I wonder?). The way I saw the narrator in my mind’s eye changed when he referenced his black father, at which point my expectations became an embarrassment, and a call to personal examination. This is the value, for me, of reading diversely. Another year in which BASS, which orders its stories alphabetically by author, ends on the perfect note.

BASS 2016: Héctor Tobar, “Secret Stream” from ZYZZYVA #103

“Hi,” Nathan said, insisting, because she was dark-skinned and pretty and he felt the need to know why she was trespassing on a golf course. “Excuse me, but… what are you doing?”
“I’m following the water.”
As soon as she said “water” Nathan heard it and felt it: the sound of liquid flowing, dripping, moving through the air, causing oxygen molecules to shift and cool. Looking behind her, on the other side of the fence, he saw a stream. About three feet wide and four inches deep, it curved around some bunkers near the seventh green, and then fell sharply, broadcasting a steady, metallic sound as it disappeared into a concrete orifice beneath Nathan’s feet.

Many years ago, in a world of virtual mountains, I knew a wizard named Ninjalicious. His hobby in the “Real” world was urban exploration: “going places you’re not supposed to go”, that aren’t direct routes from here to there, that live behind formidable doors and around ominous corners and up abandoned staircases. He and his urban explorer friends had a zine and a website and a guide book for the curious. His interest in these places started as a way to amuse himself during a childhood hospitalization, one of many he would have throughout his too-short life; he was about 30 when he died. I still remember him from time to time. He had firm principles rooted in a core belief expressed with respect and upheld with consistency, so I respected him. We weren’t close, or even friends, barely even acquaintances; I communicated with him perhaps twice on those mountains far far away, but something stuck. And now this story about two urban explorers unsure of what they’re looking for has brought his memory back to me again.

But urban exploring is just the beginning of what this story triggered for me. Like any recent convert, I’ve been a bit obsessed with ancient Chinese philosophy lately, and it so happens that water had a position of importance from the beginnings of Chinese history. The third Sage King, Yu, was so proclaimed because of his success at taming the Yellow River, preventing the floods that had devastated so much of the countryside for so long; thus controlling water, as I recently learned, became a metaphor for civilization. Laozi, Mencius, Xunzi, Zhuangzi all used water as metaphors for various forces: human nature, qi, dao.

Sofia was her name and she described herself as a “river geek.” She said she was mapping the creek that ran through the golf course. Also its “tributaries.” It was ancient stream, she told him, born from a spring at the base of the Hollywood Hills, “bubbling up from the underworld”. She showed Nathan her map, a series of blue pencil lines over a street grid she had pasted into her notebook. “It’s groundwater,” she said. Before reaching the golf course, the stream flowed into downtrodden Hollywood proper, around assorted industrial buildings and parking lots, and also through a junior-high campus and the television studios of KTLA. Sofia described all these things with a reverence that Nathan found disturbing: he sensed that she’d been doing this mapping expedition of hers alone, for weeks, and had never talked to anyone else about it until this moment.

When it comes right down to it, I can’t really say why I was so captivated by this story. Like Ted Chiang’s “The Great Silence”, it just struck something in me. I mention Ninjalicious and water because that’s what it brought to mind, but I don’t really know why I was crying by the end. Maybe it’s because, as Nathan admits toward the end, he can’t get out of his own way – “he preempted disappointment” – even when the water shows him the path. I know someone like that, too, another wizard from the Mountains. I’m a lot like that, in fact. Or maybe, as ZYZZYVA editor Oscar Villalon says in his introduction, it’s because it evokes a sense of something that can’t last, a sense I feel very strongly in this time when nothing seems like it can last much longer.

I’m a little haunted by the story even now, and I’m a bit embarrassed by that, since I can’t explain it, can’t talk about the structure of the plot or the language or any of the other technical places to hide from talking about feeling. Maybe that’s what the beauty of art is: it defies analysis and simply touches us.

BASS 2016: Sharon Solwitz, “Gifted” from New England Review 36.2

Maeva Fouche: "Pretty Ugly"

Maeva Fouche: “Pretty Ugly”

They lived across from a run-down park on a street they jokingly called Park Place. They drove older cars, drove as little as possible for the sake of the environment. They had a cleaning service, so they wouldn’t fight over who had left what where. But they rarely fought, in part because Allan was easy-going, in part because Thea was happy. Her job required travel (what fun!) but not enough to upset the applecart of the family. She made it to basketball games (Nate), violin recitals (Nate), and soccer matches (Dylan). When she was gone, Allan, who taught two courses a semester at a Research I university, took care of the boys. Amiably. Lovingly.

My first thought was, This is almost an excerpt from a novel. But not quite: it does have a trajectory, though not the expected one, that clearly begins and ends within the pages, so maybe not. Then I read in the Contributor Note that it’s from an in-process “collection of interrelated stories, or maybe it’s a novel in stories” which explains why it is, yet is not, a story-unto-itself.

To further complicate matters, it’s the second Solwitz story I’ve read. Here’s what I said about the prior one:

This story is part of a collection, apparently not yet published, written by Solwitz to chronicle the death of her 13-year-old from cancer: “A collection that shrieks, as I did not, Weep, world”…. you don’t analyze someone’s sacrament.

I’ll leave it there, with my best wishes that she finds the peace she seeks through these stories.

BASS 2016: Yuko Sakata, “On This Side” from The Iowa Review #45.1

Upon noticing him, the girl looked up with a hopefulness that made Toru feel apologetic. Suddenly he could smell his own body. He had come from making the rounds restocking vending machines and hadn’t bothered to shower at the office when he’d changed out of the uniform. With his eyes to the ground, he tried to squeeze past her.
“Toru-kun.” The girl stood up. Her voice sounded oddly thick.
For a moment they stood awkwardly together on the stairs. A mixture of soap and sweat wafted from her. Up close, Toru saw that her face was meticulously made up, her skin carefully primed and her expectant eyes accentuated with clean black lines. He was slow to recognize what was underneath. But then he felt his heart skip a beat.
“Masato?” he said.
“Hello.” As though in relief, she held out her hand, and Toru shook it automatically. Her fingers were bony but solid in his palm. “I go by Saki now.”
“Saki?”
More than ten years ago, in junior high school, she had been a boy.

Sometimes I hear stories. Not in the literal sense, as in listening to them being read, nor in the synesthetic sense of “tasting colors”. It’s more of an association, or a metaphorical impression. Some stories have loud pounding rock beats; others are accompanied by bluesy jazz. This one is very quiet, in a very loud way; a quiet that is insistent on being heard. A wood flute, or maybe a lute. A whisper; a secret. One secret, once deeply buried now spoken aloud; another, once shared, now kept deeply buried. A very interesting reversal of secrets. What secrets held today will someday be shared, and what loud proclamations will one day be hidden in shame?

Toru and Masato weren’t friends in school, but became loosely acquainted through the usual bizarre mechanisms of teenage romantic schemes. But what Toru most remembers about Masato is his leap from a third-floor balcony, a leap that caused great bodily harm and, incredibly enough, a reprimand for recklessness, since there were witnesses who saw him jump voluntarily. Apparently no one wanted to ask why a “quiet, fragile-looking boy who seemed to prefer solitude” would do such a thing. Turns out Toru, who only saw the aftermath, might’ve had a good idea as to what happened. Later, when Saki speaks of revenge, involving giant scissors, upon the bullies in her life, Toru squirms uncomfortably. I’m thinking she settled for justice, no need for scissors.

I like the way the story is told. It could be a simple A to B to C story, but instead it’s layered with a number of elements that add texture while underlining the quiet of the central plot. For instance, one of Toru’s jobs is cleaning graves for the Japanese holiday known as Bon, a festival in which the souls of dead ancestors return (hence the cleaning of graves) to welcoming fires, and on the final night, are sent back again by floating candles along the river. Saki joins him:

Saki contemplated this for a second. “Do you think it’s really peaceful there?” she said. “On the other side?”
Toru glanced at her. She was tracing the clean edges of the gravestone with her long finger. The sun was already high, and everything in sight had a bright shallowness to it. A tiny thunderhead poised over the distant treetops, but no shade was in sight. Just then, there was something so delicate about Saki that for a second Toru had an urge to shield her from the harsh light. He shook the thought away.
“I personally don’t believe in the other side,” he said.

It’s quite a nice fit into the story, this idea of souls returning from the other side, and whether peace is to be found there for those who could never find it here. As I read it, Saki returns, and departs with her mission complete. Toru, on the other hand, still seems stuck in his messy life, messy apartment, messy affair. Toru’s Bon work as a substitute for loving relatives who should be tending graves but are too busy, completes the picture: he cleans up after people too busy to worry about their past, perhaps to some degree cleaning up his own past.

Sakata’s Contributor Note mentions her sense of Japan as “simultaneously my own and foreign”, another nice fit for this story. It’s also a phrase I’ve heard frequently in the World Literature mooc I’m currently taking; just this week, in fact, that phrase was used about both Salman Rushdie and Jhumpa Lahiri in reference to the South Asian settings of their works. I hope that’s a good sign for Sakata; I like her voice, and I’d like to hear more of it.

BASS 2016: Karen Russell, “The Prospectors” from TNY 6/8/15

Those first weeks alone were an education. The West was very poor at that moment, owing to the Depression. But it was still home to many aspiring and expiring millionaires, and we made it our job to make their acquaintance. One aging oil speculator paid for our meals and our transit and required only that we absorb his memories; Clara nicknamed him the “allegedly legendary wit.” He had three genres of tale: business victories; sporting adventures that ended in the death of mammals; and eulogies for his former virility.
We met mining captains and fishing captains, whose whiskers quivered like those of orphaned seals. The freckled heirs to timber fortunes. Glazy baronial types, with portentous and misguided names: Romulus and Creon, who were pleased to invite us to gala dinners, and to use us as their gloating mirrors. In exchange for this service, Clara and I helped ourselves to many fine items from their houses. Clara had a magic satchel that seemed to expand with our greed, and we stole everything it could swallow. Dessert spoons, candlesticks, a poodle’s jewelled collar. We strode out of parties wearing our hostess’s two-toned heels, woozy with adrenaline. Crutched along by Clara’s sturdy charm, I was swung through doors that led to marmoreal courtyards and curtained salons and, in many cases, master bedrooms, where my skin glowed under the warm reefs of artificial lighting.

~ Complete story available online at TNY

Somehow, Russell has managed to combine the realism-into-fantasy of Erdrich’s “The Flower” and Bynum’s “The Bears”, the humor-over-tragedy and momentum of Smith Henderson’s “Treasure State”, historical fiction, mystery, and religious allegory into one very readable story. It’s one of the longer stories in the anthology, but it zips right by.

The Timberline Lodge in Oregon serves as the historical basis for the primary setting of the story. It was indeed built during the Depression as a WPA project, and is maintained as an Historic Site even as it currently operates as a high-end ski lodge. The project provided work for those who desperately needed it, and left a permanent reminder of its purpose. And now it serves a purpose as the model for the Evergreen Lodge, the destination of Aubergine and Clara, two girls from opposite sides of the tracks who ran away together, from very different things.

But winter hit, and our mining prospects dimmed considerably. The Oregon coastline was laced with ghost towns; two paper mills had closed, and whole counties had gone bankrupt. Men were flocking inland to the mountains, where the rumor was that the W.P.A. had work for construction teams. I told Clara that we needed to follow them. So we thumbed a ride with a group of work-starved Astoria teen-agers who had heard about the Evergreen Lodge. Gold dust had drawn the first prospectors to these mountains; those boys were after the weekly three-dollar salary. But if government money was snowing onto Mt. Joy, it had yet to reach the town below. I’d made a bad miscalculation, suggesting Lucerne….Day after day, I told Clara not to worry: “We just need one good night.” We kept lying to each other, pretending that our hunger was part of the game. Social graces get you meagre results in a shuttered town.

Prospecting for gold and the more pejorative “gold digger” are thus linked. And all they need is a decent strike. Enter the shadowy Eugene, who suggests the grand opening party at the Evergreen Lodge. But nothing’s ever that simple, and the story takes a turn from real to surreal when Aubby says, “I think we may have taken the wrong lift.” The prospecting goes awry, though they eventually encounter gold of a sort: they never call it a canary but the yellow bird bursting with song is clearly the canary in the coal mine, the warning.

I found it to be an exciting story, keeping my curiosity high and the pages turning. At first, it was, I wonder what’s going to happen. Then, almost without realizing it, that changed to I wonder if, how they’re going to get out of it. Although I didn’t feel a lot of strong emotion, I did feel protective of these girls. Yes, they’re playing a dangerous game, they’re walking on the wild side, but between Clara’s bruises and Aubby’s background (Aubergine is the French word for eggplant, but it’s also a color: the deep purple of a bruise) and the Depression, can we really blame them? Aubby isn’t without insight, however belated it may be:

She flicked her eyes up at me, her gaze limpid and accusatory. And I felt I’d become fluent in the language of eyes; now I saw what she’d known all along. What she’d been swallowing back on our prospecting trips, what she’d never once screamed at me, in the freezing boarding house: You use me. Every party, you bait the hook, and I dangle. I let them, I am eaten, and what do I get? Some scrap metal?
“I’m sorry, Clara . . . ”
My apology opened outward, a blossoming horror. I’d used her bruises to justify leaving Florida. I’d used her face to open doors. Greed had convinced me I could take care of her up here, and then I’d disappeared on her. How long had Clara known what I was doing? I’d barely known myself.

As with most stories, I wouldn’t call it perfect. The “wrong lift” feels a little manipulative, sprung on the reader as there’s no indication of more than one lift until it’s needed. The symbolism is a little on-the-nose. But it’s an engrossing read, kind of a whirlwind you can’t stop watching. And the girls tugged at my heart despite, or maybe because of, their foolish choices; I was cheering for them. And, most importantly, it says something: you may have to go through hell, but if you keep yourself honest and heed warnings, you might come out of it with something better than gold. Clichéd? Sure, but I take comfort where I can these days. Any story that does all that, isn’t half bad.

BASS 2016: Daniel J. O’Malley, “Bridge” from Alaska Quarterly Review #32

He saw the old couple twice, once when they stopped halfway across to pose for a picture, and again a year later when they came back, this time without the camera, and for a while all they did was stand there.
Both times he watched from the window, which was not what he was supposed to be doing, he knew that, he knew well what he was supposed to be doing, which was studying. In the mornings, his mother would tell him things – he would follow her around the house while she did her inside work, then outside where she did her garden work and her chicken work – and he would listen and take notes in his notebook while she talked about the histories of their state and their country and their family – his mother’s family, plus his father’s family, and then their own family, the family they made when they made him – but also about the flood of locusts and frogs and other plagues that had happened before and could happen again, and he would take notes so that in the afternoon he could sit in his bedroom and study, and to then in the evening, after the supper dishes were done, he could stand and recite for his father what all he’d learned from his mother in the morning.
But his memory was strong. His mother’s words found a home in his mind the moment they left her mouth. So most days he passed his afternoon study time staring out the window and down at the bridge, which was the only thing he could see between the trees.

Remember Chekhov’s Gun? It’s the axiom of plotting that requires that everything in the story be essential, often phrased as “If you put a gun in the first act, it better go off before the end of the play.” What about when there are two guns, and your attention is so focused on the MAC-10 you’re taken by surprise when it’s the air rifle that pops off.

The actual bridge in the story, as interesting as it turns out to be, takes second place to the more metaphorical bridge between childhood and the beginnings of adulthood, that moment when a child realizes that, though he’s been aware for a while that the world isn’t necessarily as it seems, neither are his parents. And there’s a rabbit. Maybe.

I’m always interested in the ways adults lie to children. It’s usually to shield them from tough realities they may not yet have the perspective to handle, but it’s often to shield the adults from facing uncomfortable truths as well. The most destructive lies, I think, are the ones that deny the child’s own feelings and perceptions. You know you love your sister, now go hug her. We aren’t fighting, we’re having a discussion. O’Malley zooms in on that moment in our young protagonist’s life, and sets it in a highly distracting bigger moment. So distracting, in fact, I’m still wondering about it: Why didn’t the boy pay more attention to it? Was the air rifle really that much more of a novelty than the automatic? Successful imaginary restructuring? Repression? Or the overshadowing importance of the personal?

BASS 2016: Caille Millner, “The Politics of the Quotidian” from  #31.2

The committee wants to have a word with her.
… Mikael Sbocniak (department chair) will take the seat in the middle. Tomas Ulrikson (selection committee head for her post-doc interview) will be on his left, with Ernst Lichtenberg (faculty mentor whom she’s met only once) on his right. She’ll sit on the other side of the table, facing them. A triptych of white beards, deep voices, cashmere sport coats. The same look from brewing for decades in the same stock of misanthropic contempt.
Pity. The study of philosophy should have done something for them – made them kinder or more thoughtful – but she’s not sure what it’s done for her, either. Years ago, when she was stressed starting graduate school, she’d have loved to critique the power dynamics of the meeting like this one. She’d be spouting Hegel and Foucault. Now she no longer wants to say anything at all.

I love academic snark. Some of my favorite stories – Taymiya Zaman’s “Thirst“, for instance – expose the dark side of the Ivory Towers. I don’t understand it, and I don’t know that I could tolerate it for long, since I prefer honesty and straightforwardness, if only because it’s easier than keeping straight a web of deceit. But in academia, as in business and for god’s sake politics, those things won’t get you anywhere. I follow many professors on Twitter, usually teachers from moocs I’ve taken, and while they don’t often air dirty laundry in public, it’s always interesting when I get a peek at one corner of the basket. So when I started this story, and found it featured a philosophy professor struggling with her environment, I rubbed my hands together gleefully.

As it happens, I got a lot more than I expected. And it happened so subtly, I was poleaxed before I felt the blade.

In terms of technique and craft, I think the subtlety is what makes this a Best story (if there is such a thing). I think it’s even quite possible that good readers will miss the hints to what is really going on; I didn’t catch on until the third one, for example. Spoilers will indeed spoil that element. But so does discussing how subtle it is, without even revealing what it is that’s so subtle, so too late, so I’m going to reveal more than should be revealed. But I do urge any reader: don’t proceed unless you’ve read the story. It’s really worth experiencing how Millner does it.

Our unnamed protagonist is a philosophy professor whose disillusionment begins long before a student challenges her interpretation of Barthes in class, then storms out while accusing her of incompetence. I’m nowhere near familiar enough with Kant’s aesthetics or, yeah, Barthes, keep meaning to read him, to put much out here, but AFAIK key notions are subjectivity and universality of beauty, and the higher aesthetic perception of form, as opposed to mere taste, the evaluation, outside the realm of aesthetics, of content. I’m not sure how this functions in the story, but fortunately for our purposes – or at least, my purposes – I find a great deal that coincides with the repeated phrase the politics of the quotidian: no matter what we claim to believe, it is in our everyday behaviors that we show what we value, what we believe, who we are.

Just like the experience of riding a public bus, a strange man read her refusal to make eye contact as an invitation to speak.

Who is allowed to belong? The professor asks her unruly student to leave with, “You don’t belong here right now”. She doesn’t feel like she belongs. She never has, it seems, not in boarding school where she “looked different from the other kids” (I skipped right around that, attributing it to unattractiveness or poverty, possibly disability, because our assumptions have a way of steering us around discomfort zones). She certainly doesn’t feel like she belongs in the same room as the three senior faculty profs she’s going to meet with. And the climactic incident occurs when an administrative worker (who is probably feeling the same kind of intrusion onto her competence, and, by the way, as a woman and an administrative employee in an academic institution, probably deals regularly with more than her own share of microaggressions) refuses to help her, demands her ID, and throws her out for requesting help with a computer issue.

If that sounds like a pretty poor excuse for a climax, well, I left out a crucial flashback our professor remembers when the admin tells her she doesn’t look like her photo:

If she looked different in her ID picture, it wasn’t because she was so much the younger last year, it was because the photographer didn’t have the proper lighting. She knew this only because he’d told her as much. It was his way of apologizing for the fact that her face on the ID was an orange smudge.
“These color filters,” the photographer had said. “They’re designed for lighter skin. I hope that’s not a weird thing to say. I don’t see color, myself. But the camera does, and if I had known I have brought different ones.”
“If you had known what?” She’d asked him.
“I mean, they said philosophy department,” he said, laughing.

All these people who don’t see color. What they mean is, they only see white people.

It’s a story about a life lived in the face of microaggressions. Go ahead, mock the idea, but you try being invalidated, just a little bit, every hour of every day in a hundred different ways. Is it really such a burden to ask that we examine our assumptions, our language, and consider what it feels like to be on the other side of the jokes, the cliches, the stereotypes?

I didn’t realize the protagonist was unnamed until I started making notes for this post, and realized I couldn’t find her name. Then I realized I hadn’t read the Contributor Note, which informed me this was a deliberate choice: “I knew I would take one big risk – identifying only those characters who had been accepted by the institution.” I love this choice. Names are identities: “Who are you” is almost always answered with a name. We go through great lengths to remember names as courtesy and as good business. God brought the animals to Adam for naming. To refuse to name her is to underline her exclusion. I feel pretty stupid for having missed it initially.

These are interesting times for this story. The politics of the quotidian. Who we are leaks out in everyday life. Compassionate liberals urge our government to welcome refugees and asylum seekers, then fume and complain when it takes an extra four minutes at the grocery store checkout line while the cashier figures out the voucher the newcomers must use. Public minded citizens love children and support education yet vote for property tax plans that cut school funding to lower their taxes so they can keep their kids in private school. Committed feminists sneer at pretty cocktail waitresses when Mr. Feminist smiles too long (that one’s for you, Amy Gardner). Who you are shows through what you do, every little bit of it.

I think readers are going to have very different reactions to this story. I think 48.2% will see our professor as sympathetic, 46.5% will want to know what she did to deserve it, and the second group will win because their predecessors set it up that way. And that’s why the politics of the quotidian matter.

BASS 2016: Ben Marcus, “Cold Litte Bird” from The New Yorker 10/19/15

It started with bedtime. A coldness. A formality.
Martin and Rachel tucked the boy in, as was their habit, then stooped to kiss him good night.
“Please don’t do that,” he said, turning to face the wall.
They took it as teasing, flopped onto his bed to nuzzle and tickle him.
The boy turned rigid, endured the cuddle, then barked out at them, “I really don’t like that!”
“Jonah?” Martin said, sitting up.
“I don’t want your help at bedtime anymore,” he said. “I’m not a baby. You have Lester. Go cuddle with him.”
“Sweetheart,” Rachel said. “We’re not helping you. We’re just saying good night. You like kisses, right? Don’t you like kisses and cuddles? You big silly.”
… “We love you so much. You know?” Martin said. “So we like to show it. It feels good.”
“Not to me. I don’t feel that way.”
“What way? What do you mean?”
They sat with him, perplexed, and tried to rub his back, but he’d rolled to the edge of the bed, nearly flattening himself against the wall.
“I don’t love you,” Jonah said.
“Oh, now,” Martin said. “You’re just tired. No need to say that sort of stuff. Get some rest.”
“You told me to tell the truth, and I’m telling the truth. I. Don’t. Love. You.”

~~ Complete story available online at TNY

Seriously creepy story. No monsters, no supernatural events, no blood or violence, just a kid who rationally, calmly decides to withdraw from parental affection. How’s a parent supposed to deal with that one? In this story, not well. But… what would well even look like? I suppose the natural approach to this story is to wonder, “What would I do,” but since I’m not a parent, I have no idea what to do with a typical child, let alone a child like this.

Jonah isn’t acting out. He isn’t withdrawing from anyone else – his relationship with his brother and his behavior in school is perfectly normal – and he isn’t disobedient. He’s just hyperrational, as though he’s examined his parents and found them unsuitable as bonding objects so has simply stopped participating in whatever love is. At first, the natural assumption is that he’s been abused, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. At one point he does coldly and calculatedly remind them of the consequences should he confide to a school counselor that his family forces him to hug and cuddle against his will, but don’t get sidetracked: the threat is instrumental (and terrifyingly effective) at obtaining his goal, but his withdrawal doesn’t seem to have anything at all to do with any abuse.

What is a ten-year-old’s meaning of “I love you, Dad” anyway? Admiration of adult capabilities, gratitude for parental duties, familiarity, need, blackmail, mimickry? Granted the existence of a child’s wish to stay close to his parents – and there’s no indication that Jonah wants to leave his home – is that called “love” by default? What is it like when parents are called on it: I don’t dislike you, I want your caretaking, I respect your authority, but I don’t love you.

There’s also a very interesting twist about religion and identity: when Jonah starts reading about trutherism, the natural reaction of his father is to freak out over his son talking about Jewish conspiracies. “Listen to me, you know that we’re Jewish, right?” Martin asks his son. “Not really”, the boy answers, because to him, Jewishness is measured by religious observance that’s been absent from their lives rather than cultural heritage, which doesn’t seem to play that big a part either. I think I could’ve handled that conversation better than Martin did, which was basically, “Because anti-Semites think you’re Jewish.”

It seems to be contagious, this isolation, in effect if not in cause: Martin and Rachel have a sex scene that’s disgusting, not because of any graphic descriptions of hot, sticky animal passion, but because of the total absence of it. The family shows early signs of disintegration.

It’s the rationality that’s creepiest, since it scratches through the millimeter-thick shell of social conditioning we all adopt as part of civilization. The conflict is between Jonah’s newfound stance in rationality, and the parents’ continued existence in emotionality and social convention. I wonder if they’re unable, or merely unwilling to give up the comforts little white lies and niceties allow us, even for a moment, even to understand their son. They simply want him back the way he was yesterday; he simply doesn’t want to come back. Impasse. He’s crossed some barrier, and his parents can’t reach across. Will they learn how, as time goes on? Or are they all stuck, with Jonah in something like a dimensional shift out of a science fiction movie?

The progression of the story is pretty much what you’d expect: a series of attempts by the parents to laugh off, wait through, reason away, and pathologize what’s going on. Something like the five stages of grief, but we never get to acceptance of the “new normal” as Marcus refers to it in his highly informative Page Turner interview. Will they ever get there? Marcus leaves that for the reader to decide.

BASS 2016: Lisa Ko, “Pat + Sam” from Copper Nickel #21

It was a cold October night in 1974. They smoked back then, everybody did. This was before Pat’s two children became Sam’s and before there were three children, before they grounded the oldest when Pat found a pack of Newports in her room. By then they would have forgotten their own youth, or rather, they would hold to their children to higher standards. The children would be confident and happy – they’d feel entitled to happiness – and for that Pat and Sam would resent them.

And here I am in that awkward place where, despite having connected earnestly with several moments in the story, and despite appreciating the overall narrative technique, I found the contributor note to be more enlightening on the whole than the story. I suspect it would succeed wildly, however, as a first story in a collection of linked stories about Pat, Sam and the family they eventually form, and it just so happens Ko has written some of those linked stories. This one interested me greatly in finding out where these people went next.

But first, what we have in front of us: A nascent-relationship story told by alternating points of view. I was thinking how much this reminded me of Groff’s earlier story, where the characters were isolated, not sharing much, but the reader connected them. Turns out Ko makes exactly that point in her Contributor Note, admitting “The story came together when I stopped resisting the alternate points of view.” I’ve read that before, a writer not wanting to write the story that wants to be written, and discovering that it’s so much better when you let the story tell itself as it wants to be told.

Well-written moments abound. There’s an incident of racism in a New Jersey restaurant, and again that isolation becomes a force: Pat is relieved that Sam didn’t make a scene when white families are seated while their Chinese family – or pseudofamily, since he’s just a date at this point – is left waiting, but he wonders if she’s disappointed at his lack of confrontation. And as the reader, I have to smile at the implied chauvinism: if she felt confrontation was a good idea, why wouldn’t she have done it herself?

Another nice moment, and a subtle one, comes when Sam, on their first date after having met at a party, tells Pat her husband died.

“It was almost a year ago.”
Only? Almost? “I’m sorry.”

We’re in Sam’s head, so he’s the one wondering if she’s saying, “It was only a year ago so don’t expect too much of me” or “It was almost a year ago so I’m ready to get on with my life.” But I wonder: does Pat know for sure if it’s almost or only?And what opinion does the reader bring? All that, conveyed in so few words. Very nice. And again, highlighting the isolation of a new relationship between two reserved people. How does anyone every manage to get past that? Slowly, laboriously, anxiously, we find out.

I like to think about the typography of the title in that vein. Not “Pat and Sam” or “Pat & Sam”, either of which would be more expected; fiction readers occasionally encounter ampersands but rarely plus signs, although they are both symbolizations of the Latin word for “and”, et. Today, the plus sign connotes addition, which makes the title a mathematical expression – not an equation, since there is no equals sign, which leaves us with the question: What do you get when you add Pat and Sam? This story holds no solution, only the question..

I was also quite fond of one of Sam’s observations, that at one point “Pat began to take on a new shape, that of the steely, vulnerable survivor. Someone who’d been wanted, before.” We all have those moments when we discover new information, and everything looks different. I was, as a teenager, panting after a boy, but when I saw him with a friend of mine I realized they were right together, and we were… not. Not at all. These moments can be hard, but they’re important. Reality is always important. Remember that going forward, by the way. There’s also Pat’s sense of unease in New Jersey, highlighted by her thought, as she walks through her back yard littered with autumn: “She had never raked leaves in her life.” And the perennial truism: “When you start to hope, then comes the danger.” Yep. Hope is the thing with feathers that, if we had any sense, we’d strangle before it ever chirped. But we don’t, because to do so is death.

But, as I said, to me the story works so much better as a first chapter. So when I discovered via the Contributor Note that it is in fact a first chapter – an origin story – I was a lot happier:

I’d previously written stories with the two characters in the present day, as retirees, and others from the points of view of their daughters, but always wondered what got them together in the first place. I started the story knowing how I wanted it to end, with a particular image that had been chasing me, a man and woman in bed, physically close but emotionally distant, weighing the compromises they’re about to make.

I’m guessing one of those later stories was “Proper Girls” featured in One Teen Story in early 2014. I’m also guessing her forthcoming novel, The Leavers, is unrelated to this family, but having now read a sample of her capabilities, I’m very interested in taking a look.

BASS 2016: Smith Henderson, “Treasure State” from Tin House #64

People being the way they are, few realized that their dead had been robbed. They returned from the funeral and set out the cold cuts on the silver trays, the faceted glasses, and the punch. They stocked bottles of beer and cans of Coke in buckets of ice, smoked a quick cigarette out back, and met the grief-stricken, the condolers, and the well-wishers at the door. The furniture smelled of the person they’d just praised to heaven and commended to the dirt. The mourners assembled along the walls in grim or conversant clusters, depending on their affinity with the dead and the yet living. Then they stole away to the upstairs bedroom or the chest in the basement or the desk in the study, only to discover the particular heirloom missing. And the surprise turned hot, and they tiptoed out of the room, slowly pinched closed the door, went up or down the stairs, and took their spot along the wall. They glowered at their kin, wondering which one had got there first.

Some people find they can’t go home again. Others discover they can never leave.

Brothers John and Daniel find out their abusive father is getting out of prison – he had a life sentence, but his terminal cancer has earned him some kind of compassionate release – and they head for the hills. Or, Montana, actually. They’ve never been there, but they like the name, they don’t like cities, and it’s got to be better than Gnaw Bone, Indiana. They’ve got a point there. Funny, I wanted to go to Montana when I was a kid, because of the Hoyt Axton song “Somebody Turned on the Light.” Funny what grabs us. But for John and Daniel, what they don’t want is for their father to grab them.

How do a couple of teenagers, even those who’ve been on their own for a while, survive a long road trip without much in the way of resources or skills? They rob houses during funerals, of course. Henderson tells us in his Contributor Note that the story came to him, nearly complete, when he read about this practice in a newspaper. On one heist, they pick up a girl who’s trying to run away. On another, John discovers more than he can handle. Then it turns out… no, that would be a spoiler.

It’s a very readable story, lots of forward motion, quirky characters and interesting, often amusing, events. Still, it’s not pure plot, for a lot of reasons, including John’s memory of smashing pumpkins with a hammer (I was a bit alarmed by the plethora of images I found just by googling pumpkin hammer to use as header art, until I remembered the rock band) then seeing Daniel take the beating for it, and how a hammer plays oh so subtly into the end. The final scene is ambiguous in a pleasant way, allowing for speculation and imagination of what happens next. And the kids are sympathetic as all get-out, making a story about death, abuse, poverty, and emotional need a fun read somehow.

This is the second Smith Henderson story I’ve run into. Like Thomas McGuane, he focuses on the rural West, which makes them stand out in a field of city and suburb stories. But that’s just where they put the stories; what they write about is universal.

BASS 2016: Meron Hadero , “The Suitcase” from Missouri Review, 38.3

All month Saba had failed almost every test she’d faced, and though she’d seized one last chance to see if this trip had changed her, had taught her at least a little of how to live in this culture, she’d only ended up proving her relatives right: she wasn’t even equipped to go for a walk on her own. What she thought would be our romantic, monumental reunion with her home country had turned out to be a fiasco; she didn’t belong here.

Some stories succeed because they touch on very deep and sombre themes. Some succeed because the writing gives goosebumps. Sometimes it’s a character, sometimes a plot that teases the reader along a path of delayed gratification that’s worth it. And sometimes a story works just because it’s charming, and heartfelt, and says something old in a unique way. I think the latter is the case here.

Saba is visiting Ethiopia to connect with the country her family left when she was too young to form a memory, to meet those they left behind. It isn’t going terribly well. The initial scene in the story has her trying to cross a street in downtown Addis Ababa. I lived in Boston, where driving is a contact sport and extra points are given for hitting pedestrians, for 20 years; I’m guessing even Boston would be no training for Addis Ababa. A local man tells Saba about a guy who tried to cross the street, gave up, and now lives on the median strip. “Don’t start what you can’t finish,” he tells her. She ends up taking a cab, and bemoans her failure.

The suitcase of the story is the second central image. Apparently it’s expensive to ship items between the US and Ethiopia, and their arrival is iffy. So her trip serves a dual purpose: mail carrier. But not just any mail.

At her mother’s insistence, Saba had brought one suitcase for her own clothes and personal items at the second that for the trip there was full of gifts from America – new and used clothes, old books, magazines, medicine – to give to family she had never met. For her return, it would be full of gifts to bring to America from those same relatives and family friends.
Saba knew this suitcase wasn’t just a suitcase.…[It] offered coveted prime real estate on a vessel traveling between here and there. Everyone wanted a piece; everyone fought to stake a claim to their own space.… An empty suitcase opened up a rare direct link between two worlds, so Saba understood why relatives and friends wanted to fill her bag with carefully wrapped food things, gifts, sundry items, making space, taking space, moving and shifting the bulging contents of the bag.

The tension of the story builds around the suitcase being so stuffed with Ethiopian love for the trip back, it’s overweight. It’s kind of a false tension; Saba could pay the overage fee, even though her relatives don’t want that. But it’s more interesting to ignore that logical flaw and go with it. That means decisions must be weighed about which of the gifts from Ethiopia to America are to be weeded out: chickpeas; loaves of bread; doro wat (a kind of spicy chicken stew); gunfo (a porridge particularly traditional for post-partum women); spices (corrorima, grains of paradise, berbere). Each relative pleads his or her case, explaining why their gift must reach loved ones on the other side. Each gift has a special resonance of meaning. And Saba must decide.

The structure of the story mimics the plot. Just as the US and Ethiopia are at the ends of a transit of goods via the suitcase, so Saba’s street crossing and her final decision are attached by a transit of sorts. Will she make it across the now metaphorical street, or will she, too, end up living on the median strip, between cultures?

It may be a flawed story (and what story isn’t), but it’s charming nonetheless, and that makes it work.

BASS 2016: Lauren Groff, “For the God of Love, for the Love of God” from American Short Fiction 18:60

Leo stood on the high window ledge, his wisp of a body pressed against the glass. Here, the frames rattled if you breathed on them wrong. There was rot in the wood older than Amanda herself. But Leo was such an intense child, and so purposeful, that she watched him until she remembered hearing once that glass was just a very slow liquid. Then she ran.
He was so light for four years old. He turned in her arms and squeezed her neck furiously and whispered, It’s you.
Leo, she said. That is so dangerous. You could have died.
I was looking at the bird, he said. He pressed a finger to the glass and she saw, down on the white rocks, some sort of raptor with the short beak. Huge and dangerous, even dead.
It fell out of the sky, he said. I was watching the black go blue. And the bird fell. I saw it. Boom. The bad thing, I thought, but actually it’s just a bird.
The bad thing? She said, but Leo didn’t answer. She said, Leo, you are one eerie mammerjammer.
My mom says that, he said. She says I give her the wet willies. But I need my breakfast now, he said, and wiped his nose on the strap of her sports bra.

This is one of those stories where nothing really happens, nobody changes, but the stylistics are interesting and if you look at the whole picture and know some background, there is a point. Sort of like a French art film with no plot, where you’re supposed to notice light and dark and who’s bigger or smaller and who has agency or power or all those other things that make French art films nearly impossible to watch. Just don’t get distracted by the dead falcon and the peeping tom. I’m going to go into more detail than usual because otherwise I’ve said all I can say, so if you dislike spoilers, stop now.

First, the players and what serves as a plot. Amanda and Grant are in France, visiting Amanda’s long-time friend Genevieve and her husband Manfred. Genevieve was Jennifer back in the old days, and Manfred’s recovering from yet another manic-depressive episode. Their four-year-old son Leo finds a dead falcon and, having seen a picture of a phoenix rising from the ashes, sets it on fire. I’m a little worried about this kid, particularly since he wets the bed; isn’t that a psychopathic triad? Turns out he didn’t kill the bird, so I guess that’s only two out of three. He does seem to like ladies, though.

The only revelation along the way is that the house they’re all staying in isn’t Genevieve and Manfred’s, but a friend of theirs, as they’ve had to sell their multiple properties and are now down to one house. There’s also a little drama about a piece of cheese that later turns out to be poisoned, but since we don’t know it’s poisoned during the drama, it’s not all that dramatic, unless you count thinking “wow, he could have died” four pages later if you remember the cheese at all. Then there’s a highly clichéd, grass-is-greener scene that reveals some reason these two became friends in the first place:

Remember that Frost poem we used to say when we were wondering which of our families would kill us first? Amanda said. Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice. Et cetera. I would have given anything for a little ice.
At least you had some joy in your family. At least there was love, Genevieve said. She blinked fast behind her sunglasses. Amanda squeezed her knee.
At least her family never made you bleed, Amanda said. All the time.

Poor Amanda: She doesn’t know “who to envy now”.

The only other events of note are the arrival of Mina, Amanda’s niece, who will be playing nanny in exchange for a month in the French countryside. The only reason her arrival is interesting is that she turns out to be black, to Genevieve’s surprise. Not that Genevieve has anything against black people, but she knew her when she was a kid, and she wasn’t black then, except of course she was, she just wasn’t as dark seeing as her mother’s white. Poor Genevieve: she’s broke, her husband’s chronically ill, and people change race on her.

There’s some very nice writing – “But as they watched, shivering, there was a great crack, and a bolt of light split the plaza wide open, and the lightning doubled itself on the wet ground, the carousel in sudden grayscale and all the animals bolt-eyed and fleeing in terror” – and I’m pretty sure between the dead raptor and the lightning and the intrusion and Mina, there’s all kinds of symbolism, though don’t press me to pin down any of it.

I did find some interesting elements overall. First, it starts with intrusion: somebody driving by on a tractor (hey, don’t ask me, what do I know about the French countryside, apparently the place is lousy with tractors) stops by the bedroom window where Amanda and Grant are, shall we say, waking up the fun way. As readers, we too intrude on the intimacy of these people through narrative technique rather than glass. Each character is isolated, keeping much of their feelings private; Amanda doesn’t know Grant is hitting on Genevieve, for instance. The story is written in revolving close third-person, but since every character gets a turn, it feels very much like omniscient view, establishing a connection between them, missing in their lives, through the reader. And a touch of dramatic irony: we end with Mina, young and optimistic, wondering what’s wrong with the others that they’re so miserable, unaware they once felt her optimism, too.

The other stylistic element I find interesting is the lack of quotation marks in a story that’s heavy with dialogue. Some writers feel quotation marks clutter up the page and get distracting so are better omitted. I don’t have any objection to that, but in this case, I found it difficult to follow in places, not sure if someone was thinking or speaking a phrase or sentence. I wonder if that was the point: erasing the boundary between what is said and what is thought and what is done, making it all a single tableau for our instrusive reading.

And the point of it all? The Contributor Note indicates the story was inspired by a long-ago visit to France, and in particular the French lullaby “Au clair de la lune” (not to be confused with Debussy). It’s a catchy little ditty about pens and fires on one level, about banging the neighbor, any neighbor, on the other. The lullaby creates the title, as the singer entreats the first neighbor “For the love of god” and the second, “For the god of love”, which, finally, creates some sense of the story’s purpose: we start out, like Mina, all about the god of love, but not that many years later we end up, like the other four, clinging to our sanity for the love of god.

BASS 2016: Yalitza Ferreras, “The Letician Age” from Colorado Review 42.2

Leticia’s mother spotted the glint in between the cobblestones, near the statue of Christopher Columbus in Parque Colón, across the edge of her stomach like a tiny sun on the horizon. She bent down sideways, careful not to fold on the fetus that would soon be her baby girl. The ring was tiny, sized for a rich child’s finger. A pronged crown nestling a ruby intercepted the gold band.
I hope it’s a girl.

Leticia’s connection to rocks began before she was even born: the cobblestones of the street, the ruby of the ring, glistening like… well, like the red braids of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess who watches over volcanos, whose hair runs down their slopes as lava flows and folds, and later becomes wispy slivers of volcanic glass. But Leticia starts out in the Dominican Republic and then New York.

An obsession with rock formations and volcanos begins for her at a young age. When her family moves from the Dominican Republic to New York when she’s 8, she begins to collect rocks in a shoebox: ordinary rocks picked up in random places, but she paints them with colors and thinks of them as various minerals and formations. It’s not only the beauty of the rocks, or the science, that appeals to her, it’s about the power displayed in geological forces, a power not available to her:

Geological changes that took thousands or millions of years to occur looped in Leticia’s head like never-ending movie: mountain ranges pushing out of the earth, minerals being formed from fluids that solidified and turned into beautiful crystals, rocks being compressed by heat and pressure, and the tiny scream of a mosquito as its life was pressed away. In volcanoes, the slow processes were sped up like cataclysmic changes she wanted in her own life, but most people were like rocks – shaped by circumstances and time. Yet once in a while a person explodes out of her bedrock and becomes something else.

I very much like that metaphor of how lives are created by forces that are outside of our control. I like a lot of the imagery and language in the story. One of the ways Leticia is shaped by circumstances is with the accidental death of her younger brother; when someone asks her if she has siblings, she tells him, “Yes, two. But now one.” That’s an interesting phrasing, connoting both the initial state, and the change, and highlighting the loss by forcing the listener (and reader) to think about it. Yet it’s not “written”, which would be incongruous in spoken dialogue; it sounds like an explanation an intellligent young woman who’s been asked this question many times might have ready. And when she meets the man who will become her fiancé, an astronomer, she admires someone who looks at the night sky all the time. He replies, “No, these days I spend very little time looking at actual stars. It’s mostly looking at hard data.” Having taken a course in solar system astronomy, I can agree that a great deal of the telescope work our instructor showed us was analylsis of signals and mathematical modeling of probabilities rather than stargazing.

Leticia’s parents are more practical-minded, and while they think rock collecting is a nice hobby, they encourage her to train as a secretary or accountant so she will not work in a factory like they do. I understand that; they’re hoping she will have a better life than theirs, but they see only one step ahead, rather than the three or four Leticia’s seen. The death of her brother solidify her plans, first with a lassitude that makes her unable to resist the path of least resistance, and second as she steps into the breach created by her parents’ grief-diminished ability to support the family.

But the astronomer does come along, and it’s on a romantic trip to Hawaii that the rocks of the earth reclaim her. Or, in another reading, that she chooses the lithosphere over the biosphere. The subsequent events aren’t entirely clear to me, and again I felt left up in the air, but the story is about that choice she made to return to her natural element; the rest, I suppose, is commentary.

According to Ferreras’ Contributor Note, the story is based on her own youthful fascination with geology and volcanology, and a “terrifying incident” that apparenty sent her in other career directions. She wrote an autobiographical essay about it, titled “Ten Famous Geologists and the Failed Geologist Who Loved Them,” a highly descriptive title. Snippets of those geological biographies are scattered through this story.

[addendum: I apologize for having done a very crappy job on this entry. I’ve been… distracted for the past couple of days. More like distraught, really. But you get the idea.]

BASS 2016: Louise Erdrich, “The Flower” from TNY, 6/29/15

TNY art by Gray318

TNY art by Gray318 (detail)

Outside an isolated Ojibwe country trading post in the year 1839, Mink was making an incessant racket. She wanted what Mackinnon had, trader’s milk—a mixture of raw distilled spirits, rum, red pepper, and tobacco. She had bawled and screeched her way to possession of a keg before. The noise pared at Mackinnon’s nerves, but he wouldn’t beat her into silence. Mink was from a family of powerful healers. She had been the beautiful daughter of Shingobii, a supplier of rich furs. She had also been the beautiful wife of Mashkiig, until he destroyed her face and stabbed her younger brothers to death. Their eleven-year-old daughter huddled with her now, under the same greasy blanket, trying to hide. Inside the post, Mackinnon’s clerk, Wolfred Roberts, had swathed his head in a fox pelt to muffle the sound, fastening the desiccated paws beneath his chin. He wrote in an elegant, sloping hand, three items between lines. Out there in the bush, they were always afraid of running out of paper.

~ Story available online at The New Yorker

I’m always interested in how a writer decides on names, particularly who gets a name, and who doesn’t. Here, it isn’t really a writer’s choice. Of course everything that happens in a story is the writer’s choice, but in this piece, Erdrich has chosen to leave the choice to the eleven-year-old daughter of Mink, who chooses to keep her name to herself even as she and Wolfred forge a bond of those alone against the world. The third time he asks, “[s]he laughed, not wanting him to own her, and drew a flower.”

Of the characters introduced in that first paragraph, the story comes down to the two children, Wolfred and the girl, who save each other and escape the adults who have betrayed them in unspeakable ways.

It’s peculiar how kids often miss an abusive parent, and this girl is no exception; her loneliness for the mother who sold her into sexual slavery for a few days’ worth of booze permeates the story. I think it’s deeper than the loss of a parent: she loses her culture, her entire way of life, when Mink dies. Wolfred, himself only 17, becomes her protector – and later, in a beautiful display of loyalty, her patient – but he can’t make up for the loss. In fact, his misinterpretation of the flower underlines the gulf between them: she can’t imagine why anyone would be named after a flower, a thing that dies.

She brings her culture along in some ways: her mother’s drum, a dog who joins them as they escape from the store where Wolfred murdered MacKinnon, her nighttime flights over the treetops, the healing skills she’s picked up from her family. But the dangers of the adult world cannot be left behind so easily:

Mackinnon’s head, rolling laboriously over the snow, its hair on fire, flames cheerfully flickering. Sometimes it banged into a tree and whimpered. Sometimes it propelled itself along with its tongue, its slight stump of neck, or its comically paddling ears. Sometimes it whizzed along for a few feet, then quit, sobbing in frustration at its awkward, interminable progress.

I very much like this semi-fantastical element, particularly as it’s presented: both she and Wolfred see it, so it becomes more real than some flight of fancy or a hallucination. While the head is the embodiment of rage and they flee from it in fear, I would guess it represents different things to each of them. To her it’s the white world trying to own her; to him, it’s the guilt of having murdered someone, even though violence was his only choice.

But they are not alone in the world, and eventually, they must re-enter. For Wolfred, this is probably a good thing, but the girl will lose more of herself when she’s put into a school where the idea is to drain her of everything Indian, to make her acceptable in the white world:

At the school, everything was taken from her. Losing her mother’s drum was like losing Mink all over again. At night, she asked the drum to fly back to her again. But there was no answer. She soon learned how to fall asleep. Or let the part of myself they call hateful fall asleep, she thought. But that was all of herself. Her whole being was Anishinaabe. She was Illusion. She was Mirage. Ombanitemagad. Or what they called her now—Indian. As in, Do not speak Indian, when she had been speaking her own language. It was hard to divide off parts of herself and let them go. At night, she flew up through the ceiling and soared as she had been taught. She stored pieces of her being in the tops of the trees. She’d retrieve them later, when the bells stopped.

The last sentence of the story is quite pointed, but in general I found the end to be unsatisfying, leaving the story unresolved in a way that feels unfinished rather than a projection into the future. I seem to be noticing endings a lot these days. In her Page Turner interview, Erdrich does cite a forthcoming novel, LaRose (published this past summer), but tells us this story does not appear in this form though its elements are scattered throughout. I’m curious: does that mean one of the girl’s descendents is a character in the novel? Or did she become a cultural icon as an adult? How did her story get carried forward? In any case, I’m glad it did.

BASS 2016: Ted Chiang, “The Great Silence” from e-flux, 5/2015

Images from The Great Silence: a video installation by Allora, Calzadilla, & Chiang

Images from The Great Silence: a video installation by Allora, Calzadilla, & Chiang

The humans use Arecibo to look for extraterrestrial intelligence. Their desire to make a connection is so strong that they’ve created an ear capable of hearing across the universe.
But I and my fellow parrots are right here. Why aren’t they interested in listening to our voices?
We’re a non-human species capable of communicating with them. Aren’t we exactly what humans are looking for?

~~ Available online at e-flux

I was sobbing like a baby by the last sentence on this one (the first tears I’ve cried over this year’s BASS). I’ve burst into tears three or four times since, just remembering it. I’d assumed it was my own personal reaction, but I see lots of other readers around the internet have had the same reaction. Junot Diaz mentioned in his Introduction that this was his favorite story of this anthology. Thing is, I had no idea, when I was done reading, what technique of craft, what deftness of language, what structure, what character development made this so effective.

It wasn’t even written as a story: it was the text to accompany a video installation by artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla. Much has been written about both the installation and the story; I had a good idea of what I would be reading via Karen Joy Fowler’s introduction in Electric Literature before I even knew the story had been selected for BASS.

I’m late to the Ted Chiang party. I only heard about him a couple of months ago, when one of my moocbuddies mentioned “Story of your Life” as his favorite science fiction story. I checked the collection out of the library and I could see why (the film version, “Arrival”, is due for release in a few weeks). So I was very happy to see him included in this anthology; while BASS has included science fiction several times (and, by the way, the last Diaz story I read was science fiction, part of an in-progress novel), the literary fiction community in general has long had a bug up its ass about anything that smells like science fiction, and I’m always happy to see signs of that changing.

Because of the enormous emotional impact, and my inability to explain it, I asked the same mooc friends who recommended Chiang to give me their impressions. One person, who preferred the theme to the writing, mentioned “[t]he juxtaposition of very simple language with a complex topic”. I think the language, since it is the expression of the parrot, had to be simple; it’s grammatical, but a bit atypical. On reflection, I also noticed the short paragraphs of equal size, and equated that to a bird’s repetitive chirp (which is a stretch, as it is probably more about the original video-installation setting of the piece).

Shawn Urban pointed out the irony of “[t]elling this story from the perspective of one of those things we have that is disappearing, particularly while pointing out how worthwhile and like us this thing is, is inspired. I like all the implications (sound, breath, hope) tied to the parrots and man’s scanning for things (extraterrestrials) he does not have. These implications have double, poignant meanings in the story. The irony and dramatic irony are subtle yet sharp.” Yes, that’s good, the irony of looking so hard yet ignoring what’s right in front of us, and all, in a twist of the ironic knife, revealed to us by that which is, by being overlooked, about to be destroyed.

We seem very determined to maintain the belief that humans are the only source of intelligence on earth. While a few researchers look in other directions, psychology, philosophy, and medicine are quite adept at changing the definition of intelligence when it seems possible that other creatures may share this quality with us, in order to maintain our uniqueness. But would this make me cry?

Then Paul Oldroyd wrote: “But the central message of random, unwitting violence by a species that is nonetheless the subject of unconditional love is what gets me. We have such greatness and arrogance within us.” Yes, that unconditional love. A grace so rich, the trespass goes unseen. Put side-by-side with our ongoing refusal to see, let alone acknowledge, our responsibility: this very well might be what starts the tears, even now. Add to that a single victim with a story, rather than a parade of abstract statistics about rainforest destruction, and you’ve got a recipe for affective engagement.

I’m not that much of an environmentalist, I’m not particularly fixated on extraterrestrial life, I don’t have any particular connection to parrots, and still Chiang knocked me off my feet. People yammer all the time, saying whatever is instrumental to their purpose at the moment, but once in a while, a human-created non-human voice touches me deeply – whether it’s Jade Rabbit or fictional parrot – when it speaks its truth, simply to speak it. All we have to do is listen. I hear you, little bird. Hang in there. “You be good. I love you.”

BASS 2016: Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, “The Bears” from Glimmer Train, #93

Once, when I was convalescing, I was sent to a farmhouse in the country. No one there knew I had been sick. A woman came to cook in the evenings, and her daughter would appear at odd hours with a mop and bucket, keeping the place clean. There were many kinds of tea to be found in the kitchen, and a woven tray on which you could arrange the tea things. Also there were deep old wooden chairs lined up along the front porch, so you could sit as long as you liked, looking out over the fields, the trees, and sometimes even the mountains if the sky was truly clear. Because of the porch and the tray and the slow way the day ended, I felt, in this place, though no one knew of my miscarriage, as if I were being gently attended to, as if all the demands of the world had been lifted away, and that I should rest.

I’d like to announce the naming of a previously known but unacknowledged disorder among readers: Protracted Furrowed Brow Syndrome (PFBS), contracted when you’re never quite sure what’s going on in a story. Fortunately, it’s only mildly painful. A glance at the Contributor Note, as well as a second read, often effects a reversal of symptoms.

The initial stages of my PFBS were barely noticeable, within normal limits of any reading experience where I hop on someone else’s train of thought. Opening with a line like “while I was convalescing” set the scene, and hinted at more details to come. But then came the narrator’s conflation of sickness and miscarriage: did she have a miscarriage because she was sick? Or was it the other way around, and complications of the miscarriage became the sickness? Or is the miscarriage itself the sickness? That led to some contemplation about how I normally wouldn’t think of a miscarriage as a sickness, but then, what would it be called? Perhaps the term sickness brings in the psychological heartsickness that followed, but further details revealed this pregnancy was not expected and the whole relationship was less than forever-after in her mind. Is her ambiguity part of the sickness as well? Or is it an engagement device, a way to get the reader asking questions and thus reading on in the hopes of finding answers?

Also peculiar was the aspect of being sent to a farmhouse, which appeared to be some kind of rustic hotel, to recover, until it became clear it was more of a writer’s retreat. But between the impression that someone had authority to send her somewhere she was not otherwise inclined to go, and the realization that she was there of her own volition and for her own purpose, I experienced more progression into the initial stages of PFBS.

This area remained practical and suspicious. At frequent intervals, sometimes only two or three trees apart, the signs were posted: PRIVATE PROPERTY, they said. Then came a list of numerous activities, followed by the words STRICTLY FORBIDDEN, and for final emphasis, the phrase SHALL BE PROSECUTED. As if these yellow signs left room for doubt and interpretation, some people had gone to the trouble of making their own: NO VISITORS, said one. NO TRESPASSING, said another. And even the cornfields were wrapped around with barbed wire. But not once did I see another person walking along the road.

The retreat itself, and the surrounding environment, delighted me and seemed just right. My brow relaxed a bit: ok, now I know where we are, the forbidding signs, the atmosphere of unseen threat (all around us, whether of trespassers on a deserted road or of pregnancy in a routine relationship or of miscarriage with the uncertainty that brings under even the best of circumstances: Am I ok? Will I ever?) and, charmingly, the house that becomes a trigger for her idyllic fantasies. I’ve done exactly that, decided that the people who live there – or, once, the veterinarian who practiced there – must be wonderful, because assholes would never have a house that so fit into my idea of family warmth and kind generosity, a house that looked so much like me. And, of course, we often imagine wrong.

It was during the running scene that PFBS truly blossomed. I understand that some people like to run, but for someone who hasn’t done a lot of running, and was still convalescing, she seemed to run for a very long time over quite a distance. My brows didn’t try to shake hands, however, until the bleeding started. And then she went into the fantasy house. Who does that? Is this a dream, a fantasy? Her reaction to Jerry Roth made me downright angry, which probably transferred to an irritation with the whole story.

And as the man drew closer, I understood more and more clearly the size of him. He moved laboriously, shuffling more than walking, halting every few steps to catch his breath. His head shone and his shoulders heaved. The hem of his bathrobe fluttered above legs that looked at once curdled and bloated, swollen to the point of bursting. His leg flesh drooped over his knees.
I knew but did not accept that this man approaching the house was Jerry Roth…. It seems impossible that the man responsible for this house was the same as the huge, repellent person kicking at his lawn. I was too inexperienced to understand how the two were not at all irreconcilable.

I think I barely skimmed the last couple of pages before turning to the Contributor Note and finding the key: Fairy tales. Oh. Silver Hair, indeed. The Bears. I get it. Would I have gotten it if not for that note? No one else seems to have had a problem with it. Are Junot Diaz, Heidi Pitlor, et al, more familiar with fairy tales, or just smarter than I am, or just more used to seeing such things, or at least more familiar with Bynum’s specialty, which is incorporating fairy tale plots into contemporary stories? Or am I just stupid? I suppose the name Robert Southey should have been a clue, but it seems I’m not up on my Lake Poets or my fairy tales.

I read the story again, and somewhat to my surprise, liked it quite a bit (I kept thinking of a line from Alt-J’s “Handmade”: “There’s bears in the wood and they’re out to get me, and I’m safe from harm if I stay in this chalet”) until the last couple of pages. I was done before the story was – and I don’t mean that in a negative way, but I felt a satisfying conclusion towards the bottom of page 66 and I still haven’t really read the remaining paragraphs. I have a hard time believing neither Glimmer Train nor the BASS crew would’ve noticed that Bynum wrote past the ending, so maybe there’s some treasure there I’m missing; that’s fine, I’ll get it on the next pass.

I’m still puzzling out a few things: What is the thematic connection between the fairy tale – trespass, pickiness – and the narrator? The passage on blondeness seems particularly shoehorned into the story: does the character think blondes don’t have miscarriages, or ambiguity, or writing block? Jerry Roth is clearly Pappa Bear, but there were three bears: who are the other two? The boyfriend? The non-baby? The book on William James? Or am I interpreting too rigidly? And speaking of William James, I found the description of his work on emotion to be fascinating, and I realized I’d heard it before. It’s been incorporated into various cognitive-behavioral therapeutic techniques under the heading of “anxiety/sadness/anger is just what you call this collection of somatic sensations, so stop calling it that and you won’t be anxious/sad/angry any more.” Such is treatment in a world of cost-driven medicine.

What’s the treatment for PFBS? Better reading skills? In the meantime, the only prolonged effect is wrinkles, and at my age, who cares.

BASS 2016: Andrea Barrett, “Wonders of the Shore” from Tin House #66

Illustration from "Glaucus, or, The wonders of the shore"  by Charles Kingsley -1859

Illustration from “Glaucus, or, The wonders of the shore” by Charles Kingsley -1859

I.
The sea-shore, with its stretches of sandy beach and rocks, seems, at first sight, nothing but a barren waste, merely the natural barrier of the ocean. But to the observant eye these apparently desolate reaches are not only teeming with life, they are also replete with suggestions of the past. They are the pages of the history full of fascination for one who has learned to read them.

The very word seashore brings together two opposites into an ecosystem all its own, neither water nor land nor something in between but its own thing entirely. The dual nature fits Henrietta perfectly: not part-schoolteacher and part-scientist, not a half-perfect melding of any two poles, but a unique whole though created from two opposites.

The story starts with deep background: an old book, the likes of which those of us who frequent used book stores have seen many times. The book itself becomes a character of sorts, certainly a structural element as a brief paragraph from its imagined pages begins each numbered section. And with every section, we find out more about what it is to be seashore.

II.
It is hoped that this book will suggest a new interest and pleasure to many, and that it will serve as a practical guide to this branch of natural history, without necessitating serious study. Marine organisms are interesting acquaintances when once introduced, and the real purpose of the author is to present, to the latent naturalist, friends whom he will enjoy.

Barrett’s Contributor Note includes the observation that the “demure fringes” of botany and marine science, such as Henrietta and Daphne occupied, were “relatively welcoming” to women. And Daphne, author of the fictional Wonders of the Shore (as opposed to Charles Kingsley’s volume of the same title, as shown in the header above), not only remains where she is welcomed – producing marine biology books for non-scientists – but has a secret alter-identity, known only to Henrietta, as a successful cookbook author. Neither this, nor that. In Daphne’s case, however, I sense the watery-land view of seashore: not something whole and unique, but two halves pasted together, one half always wanting to expand but crowded by the other. But maybe that’s just my reading.

The focus of the plot itself, once the stage is set (and the impatient may find themselves straining at the bit to get there – but do yourself a favor, relax and let the story set its own pace) is one of the annual vacations Henrietta and Daphne spend together making observations and collecting samples for the forthcoming Wonders on Appledore Island at the invitation of writer Celia Thaxter. Appledore Island, the Isles of Shoals, is a real place, though the hotel is long gone. What remains is the Shoals Marine Laboratory which continues investigating the seashore under the direction of Dr. Jennifer Seavey, as women are now permitted beyond the demure fringes of science.

Celia Thaxter was a very real person as well; in fact, about a decade ago I sang for a choral director whose specialty ran to historically based programs. He’d earlier created a concert of Victorian and contemporary art songs titled “Music from Celia Thaxter’s Parlor” based on Thaxter’s poetry and the sheet music that remains, just as the island and the sea remains. Celia doesn’t come off very well in the story, I’m afraid; she seems to be a bit of a snob, in fact. I’m hoping the real-life poet was more generous.

III.
Every coast-line shows the destructive effects of the sea, for the bays and coves, the caves at the based of the cliffs, the buttresses and needles, are the work of the waves. And this work is constantly going on. The knotty sticks so commonly seen on the beach are often the hearts of oak or cedar trees from which tiny crystals of sand have slowly cut away their less solid outer growth.

We see the destructive effects in the human story as well. Daphne is embraced by the crowd at Mrs. Thaxter’s salon, while Henrietta does not fit in so well. A storm blows through the island one evening: “By morning the storm had blown away, leaving the shore littered with seaweeds and all kinds of creatures – exactly, Henrietta realized when she woke, what Daphne needed.” But Daphne has her own plans, and Henrietta is excluded. Yet this destructive effect, like the storm, provides all manner of opportunity for Henrietta, including some time spent with another Thaxter guest who did not quite fit in.

V.
As each wave retreats, little bubbles of air are plentiful in its wake. Underneath the sand, where each bubble rose, lives some creature. By the jet of water which spurts out of the sand, the common clam mya arenaria reveals the secret of its abiding-place. Only the lifting of a shovelful of sand at the water’s edge is needed to disclose the populous community of mollusks, worms, and crustaceans living at our feet, just out of sight.

Barrett has a real talent for telling stories about historical science that subtly mirror parallel stories outlining the complexities and puzzlements of the characters’ relationships and emotions. The connections are between the dual threads are powerful, yet never obvious.

I wondered, at the end of the story, if Henrietta had regrets. I don’t think so, beyond a momentary flicker once in a while. I think, had she been a different persons, she could have felt out of place on either land or sea, caught between science and teaching, between married and single, between secrets and revelation, but instead found her own place in the wonders of the shore. Maybe not a place anyone truly understood, not even Daphne, but her place. Seashore: not land, not water, but something entirely its own.

BASS 2016: Tahmima Anam, “Garments” from Freeman’s, Fall 2015

One day Mala lowers her mask and says to Jesmin, my boyfriend wants to marry you. Jesmin is six shirts behind so she doesn’t look up. After the bell, Mala explains. For months now she’s been telling the girls, ya, any day now me and Dulal are going to the Kazi. They don’t believe her, they know her boyfriend works in an air-conditioned shop. No way he was going to marry a garments girl. Now she has a scheme and when Jesmin hears it, she thinks, it’s not so bad.
Two days later Mala’s sweating like it’s July. He wants one more. Three wives. We have to find a girl.

Not your typical wedding story. No bridesmaids complaining about dresses, no estranged relatives forced into the same room for the first time in decades, no kids being cute and/or troublesome, no muttering from giver or givee about presents. Just three girls and a guy getting married because they’re all broken, in one way or another, and “Jesmin sees marriage as a remedy. If you are a girl you have many problems, but all of them can be fixed if you have a husband.”

I’m not sure a wedding can fix the particular ways these particular people are broken. Take Mala:

Jesmin watches the back of Mala and Dulal. She knows that Mala’s brother died in Rana. That Mala had held up his photo for seven weeks, hoping he would come out from under the cement.… Mala’s face was cracked, like a broken eggshell, until she found Dulal. Now she comes to the factory, works like magic, tells her jokes, does her overtime as if it never happened, but Jesmin knows that once you die like that, on the street or in the factory, your life isn’t your life anymore.

The theme of female brokenness crosses oceans. The factory in which the girls work makes, among other things, Spanx. The story refers to them as Thanks, so called, the rumor goes, because the women who wear them look so good, they say “Thanks!” to their panties. Broken women in Bangladesh, making high-priced super-control underwear for Western women trying to fix their own perceived brokenness. But it isn’t just the women: we discover Dulal, the husband, has his brokenness as well, a brokenness he tries to fix with three wives. And then there’s the very real-life broken factory, the 2013 collapse of which in Rana killed 1,137 people besides Mala’s fictional brother.

Back in a linguistics class in another millennium, we spent a class period examining the usages of “broke” to obscure or locate intent or blame. The window was broken. The window broke. He broke it. The ball broke the window. All the ways we can distance violence from breakage, and all that’s left are shards to be swept up and something that needs fixing, the kind of broken a husband, three wives, or six ounces of Spandex can’t touch.

BASS 2016: Mohammed Naseehu Ali, “Ravalushan” from Bomb #131

"Zongo Street" by Ruben Gozi, Tema, Ghana

“Zongo Street” by Ruben Gozi, Tema, Ghana

The music we heard on our radios that morning was nothing new to our ears; it was what the soldiers played whenever they make a coup. The brassy, instrumental military music had been playing since dawn, and every now and then a deep male voice interrupted with the same announcement: “Fellow countrymen and women. The New Ghana Proletariat Revolutionary Council, N.G.P.R.C., is now in full control of the Castle and the radio stations in all nine regional capitals. We advise everybody to remain calm and to stay tuned for a speech. By the Leader of the Revolution. At ten o’clock.”
Revolution?
It was the first time we had heard the word, and it sounded more serious than the coup d’état we were used to.

Story available online at Bomb magazine

I often don’t recognize the first person plural point of view; I just assume it’s singular and don’t realize the “I” never emerges. In fact, I’m not 100% sure there isn’t an “I” somewhere in this story, but I don’t think so. I think the town is the main character, and the story is about how the town changes during the Ravalushun, finally descending into a despair so dark, it can’t even be seen but only heard through perverse laughter.

Unlike the prior story, set in Nigeria but applicable to anywhere, this one is rooted firmly in Ghana by everything from religion to street names. Just as with the point of view, however, I didn’t catch on for a while (I never claimed to be the brightest bulb in the chandelier); I thought it might be some kind of Freedonia, the story a kind of Marx Brothers spotlight on the absurdity of freeing the land only to take it hostage (a theme we might pay close attention to in this time), of destroying the village in order to save it. I read it as dark satire, something like Catch-22 or, even more specifically, Stephen O’Connor’s short story, “Another Nice Mess” from just a few years ago. But I was wrong: according to the Contributor Note, it is based on Ali’s recollection, as a 9-year-old child, of a very real, very bloody 1979 coup.

“We seized power in order to give it back to you, the people,” the new leader continued, his voice awe-inspiring and uplifting…. Listening to his angry speech one could have sworn by the Quran that Sergeant Leader, the name we instantly gave the new head of state, was sent by Allah himself to rescue us. To lift up Zongo Street from its poverty, to give us the opportunities other tribes enjoyed, to buy some respect for us and all the common folks in this land. The speech lasted not more than six minutes and, before concluding, the Sergeant Leader explained that some anti-revolution soldiers were trying to stage a coup to counter his “Uprising,” and that in order to stabilize the situation, a six-to-six curfew had to be imposed nationwide, “Until further notice.”

It’s a nice community, with a Catholic school and a madrassa and kids who play together and a barbershop where querulous men argue politics and a merchant who might be considered rich but does not engender any hostility, a couple of harmless guys who are non compos mentis but are tolerated just fine. It was a nice community until it was freed, at which point initial celebration turned to fear turned to horror turned to survival instinct turned to something inhuman as an owl looks on.