It’s common for short story collections to “go together,” to have common plots or subjects. These stories are the result of my disparate life, which feels like about twelve different lives coincidentally lived by the same person. I couldn’t begin to thank everyone who helped me survive every one of those little lives within the larger life I’ve lived…. Thanks most of all to God, whom on any given day I’m 51% certain does not exist. If I’d have been more certain God did exist, I’d never have been able to write these stories.~~ Jake Weber
For the past couple of years, Jake Weber and I have been trading comments on stories from BASS and Pushcart, both here and on his blog. I was delighted to hear that his story collection been selected by the Washington Writers’ Publishing House for publication, and of course bought it and planned to write about it. But in the background I was a little worried, as I always am when someone I know publishes: what if I didn’t like it? As usual, I needn’t have worried.
Don’t Wait to be Called is full of stories about people I came to care about, sometimes in spite of myself and my pre-existing attitudes. It transforms the vague current-event descriptor “refugee” into flesh and blood and tears and hope in people like Daud and Hiwet and Tesfay. A sensitive, insecure wreck of a bodybuilder idolizes the wrong role model, a teenager tries to connect with his dying father through algebra, and a veteran with longstanding self-doubt deals with, shall we say, a very personal injury.
Through it all, I wondered about the title of the collection, a collection that begins and ends with calling. I heard an exhortation to reach out, to help. I wouldn’t know until the last story that I was wrong, which, in addition to generating some self-reflection, led me to view the entire collection in a different light, almost as different stories: instead of presenting hurting and flawed characters as needing help, it presents them as active agents getting what they need. I asked Jake if this ambiguity was planned, since it had such an impact on me, but it turns out he had something else in mind:
Ultimately, I just love the proverb the last story plays with: dogs and days don’t wait to be called. Time moves on, as much as we don’t want it to. That compels decisions before we’re ready to make them. Our whole lives come to an end eventually, built on a series of hurried decisions. So the title of the book to me is maybe a little bit about letting yourself off the hook for making imperfect choices. Like what title to give your book, for example.
I also asked about how the stories were ordered, one of my favorite guessing games.
I had a mess of stories that didn’t go together. Other than the four Eritrean/Ethiopian stories, I was all over the place. When I looked at it a little closer, I felt like Brokedick, Dawn Doesn’t Disappoint, Strongest I’ve Ever Been and What Every Parent Should Know… all kind of fit the category of “bro lit.” That left four miscellaneous stories. So I took the four immigrant pieces, the four bro-lit pieces, and the four miscellaneous pieces, and decided to just layer them like lasagna. Sauce-noodles-cheese. That’s all the thinking that went into it, other than I altered the formula a bit so it would begin and end with Eritrea/Ethiopia stories, and hopefully start with some of my best stuff. Other than that, the order was just as they felt right, trying to break things up for the reader between heavy and light so the whole book wasn’t a downer.
While many of the themes and situations were disturbing, the book wasn’t a downer at all. When I think of downer books, I think of Jim Shepard’s Like You’d Understand Anyway, which so overwhelmed me with macho self-destruction I gave up halfway through. Jake’s most desperate characters are never hopeless, and while his bro-lit does involve macho posturing, the characters retain a humanity that made them relatable. Ultimately we’re all dealing with the same insecurities: Am I good enough?
A few of my favorites:
“Everything is Peaceful Here Except for Missing You” from Bartleby SnopesHe causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
After hello, there are five phrases in Tigrinya you must repeat at least several times each in every phone call. None means anything, which is why they are so important to say over and over. Mama has hit them all at least twice. She’s surprisingly adept at using Skype for a woman who never had a phone growing up or a computer until eight years ago.
How are you? Is everything peaceful? How is your health? How about your family? We are all fine here, except for missing you.
The opening story is quite short and exists in what is unsaid; such restraint is a gift few writers have. We come to realize, through the simplest of narrations, that family is family, a mother is a mother, no matter who the son may be.
Whenever a white middle-class American writes about African refugees, there’s a tendency to wonder if they know what they’re talking about. Jake is, in fact, a translator who knows Tigrinya (and Korean and Spanish) and has worked with newly arrived refugees from Eritrea and Ethiopia; his stories come from real life rather than news and partisan commentary. I asked him if he worried about being accused of appropriation:I don’t know what is good and bad appropriation, given that all artists steal something.There’s definitely good and bad ways to do it. You hit on some of the bad ways. White savior, talking over them, etc. I mean, I kind of have to speak from a white, male perspective. I have to temper my stories written with the hope of giving voice to someone else by knowing it’s also my voice in there, too. But there’s a way to do that in good faith and a way to do it as theft. I hope I did the right one. I just know I have to write about what moves me. Sometimes, that’s weight lifting and male enhancement. Sometimes, it’s the cruelty of the world to most of its inhabitants….I realize that my reading of Ethiopians or Eritreans is filtered through my own, privileged, white, male, Western perspective…That doesn’t mean it’s an invalid, immoral, or unworthy perspective.
“Brokedick”Standing in a row on a counter next to Chase were four foam phalluses, in varying shades of purple, mounted to a plastic display tray. They reminded Chase of stele lined up to meet the sun by a tribe lost to history millennia ago, a tribe whose sole remaining heritage brought busloads of European tourists to guess wrongly at their purpose. Periwinkle was for the completely limp dick, already leaning over on its own. Phlox was the penis that could get hard, but not hard enough for penetration. The one that could penetrate but not maintain erectness was thistle. Finally, the fully erect rod capable of satisfying an entire cheerleading squad, the penis the pills could give you, was a deep, throbbing, royal purple.
I never realized I have a policy against reading stories that begin with prosthetic penises, until I read that paragraph. It’s a good thing I ignored that subconscious quirk, because this ended up not only one of my favorite stories in the collection, but one I’ve come back to over and over. It’s beautifully plotted, paced, and played.
Funny stories can be told many ways. This funny story is told with grim seriousness that recalls an old definition of the difference between comedy and tragedy: comedy is when you fall on a banana peel and break your leg; tragedy is when I fall on a banana peel and break my leg. It’s easy to laugh at a guy who breaks his penis (and, yes, it happens; seriously, google “penile fracture” if you don’t believe me) while screwing his girlfriend in her dorm room. The detail – he screams, punches her laptop (“the backspace button was still falling back down from where it had ricocheted, knew before it landed upside down again just three keys away from where it began…”), and transfers for a semester in Mexico to get away from the rumors that he was “the Marine with PTSD who’d beat some girl in the dorms nearly to death.”
But when the backstory comes in, and the Marine Corps reunion rolls around, we stop laughing. If we’re lucky, we know what we need. If we’re very lucky, we know when we don’t need it any more.I was inspired by my experience in the Marine Corps during a time when there weren’t a whole lot of wars going on to write a story about a former Marine who feels like his manhood is invalidated by his own lack of a war record.
Mr. SympathyIt isn’t that my father had no love to give me. His love merely stayed balled up as potential energy, always wanting to be unleashed like a wound spring if I ever managed to be good at the thing he wanted me to be good at….
Math stories are rarely about math, and this one is no exception; it provides plot and setting around which characters revolve, hide, fall down, get up, grow.
Corfu – yes, like the Greek island – is struggling through remedial math class. His father is the actuary’s actuary. As he puts it: “I had an unconscious tendency to change math problems from the problem in front of me to the problem I wanted it to be.” Coincidentally, he turns his father’s terminal cancer into the desire to learn algebra and ace the SATs in two months, which is, of course, not about math and all about connecting. As Dad’s illness gets worse, he loses his voice which turns out to be exactly what was needed: because love can be conveyed with little circles that look like tadpoles, and the smell of Ben-Gay on a math book can equal parental pride.…I had something of a breakdown on Saturday night. Suddenly, numbers made no sense to me. What did they even mean? Were they real? How could zero mean nothing and also still be a number?
I immediately thought, “This kid’s a mathematician, he just doesn’t know it yet,” because that’s exactly the sort of thing a mathematician would think – not formulas and equations and what a negative exponent means, but the nitty gritty about zero. Worrying about whether numbers are real wanders into mathy philosophy territory, also a fun place, and so much more fun than the quadratic equation and solving for x. And sure enough, Corfu became a math major.
I did have some qualms. The remedial-math-to-quant path seemed a bit much, for one thing. For another, I have to question the pedagogy outlined; anyone who can learn algebra from doing the odd-numbered problems in a textbook either didn’t learn algebra, but rather learned how to answer textbook algebra problems (in which case, he never would’ve made it through an undergrad math degree) or wasn’t that confused to begin with (in which case I’m interested in his actual problem). And again I checked in with Jake to see how he developed Corfu’s path:I was good at math in elementary school, then progressively worse as it took more and more caution and care to get answers right. I nearly failed it my junior year…. I learn from reading. A few months before I started college (after a six-year break after high school to go into the Marines), I picked up an algebra book. I taught myself algebra by doing the odd-numbered problems. Then I taught myself geometry. I really wish I’d kept going.
We’re going to have to talk more about math, Jake and I; but this is all peripheral to the heart of the story, which remains one of my favorites as is.
American as Berbere from Baltimore ReviewFor Meb, and everyone I know like him.
When he was twelve, Tesfay came to the conclusion that all Habesha music had a drumbeat that sounded like somebody had chucked two shoes into a Laundromat dryer, and soon thereafter developed a contempt for Ethiopian music—and perhaps Ethiopia in general—that stuck with him. There had been a few years, soon after he came to the United States at eight, a fugitive of famine and the Derg’s policies he knew nothing about, when he would listen with admiration to the beat of the kebero, as the horns and krar and flute-like thing with the name he couldn’t pronounce all worked around it, like pilgrims weaving their strands around a May-pole. But over time, it became harder for the Greater D.C. Tigrayan People’s Cultural Center to find anyone who knew how to play the krar, so they settled for a competent drum player and a synthesizer. In this arrangement, Tesfay heard only the drum’s repetitious “ba-bump, ba-bump” drubbing away at the same speed. It filled him with a sense of futility, that no matter how many times someone hit the drum, the cycle would just keep going around, until someone finally yelled “d’rub!” and the drummer sped up to reach the merciful death of the song.
There’s something about running that makes for a great story, even for non-athletes like me. Maybe because it’s both a simple sport – just the runner, and time – and a complex one involving physiological and psychological strategy. Maybe because running borrows off the journey metaphors.
Tesfay’s journey is again an immigrant story. His family showed up in a fanfare of publicity, since he’d been one of the starving children in a fundraising video, but they were forgotten shortly after and became just another struggling family trying to get by and Tesfay becomes the butt of jokes as the images make the rounds at his school. He becomes a runner by accident, after making a deal with his phys ed teacher to run the whole period instead of subjecting himself to peer torment in whatever game the class is playing.
Some time ago, I came across a magnificent turn of phrase by writer Michelle Janssens Keller: the immigrant as palimpsest. One story written over by another. Tesfay’s story weaves together the American and the Ethiopian in ways both harmonious and discordant: Tesfay and his cousin Robel; ambition versus faith; celebrity versus scorn; violin versus kebero. And throughout, Tesfay is moving between two cultures, never fully at home in either. A subtle but devastating clash during the Olympic trials 10K brings us to the climax of the story, and Tesfay finds his own path.
While I’ve picked these four as detailed examples, other stories stand out. “A Cinnabon at Mondawmin” outlines the two Americas in a way even earnest commentary can’t. “Savage, Maryland” creates a fascinating character in an old misanthrope who constructs a bath house so he can just soak his retirement away, and had me on the edge of my seat at the end. “The Strongest I’ve Ever Been” had me angry, sad, and amused in rotation, then finally landed on a resolution neither sentimental nor tragic.
I asked Jake the question I always ask authors I’m lucky enough to talk to: what question do you wished I’d asked?
I just like talking about the stories with people who liked them, trying to figure out what they mean. Did Tesfay come in second? Does Bill end up with Alisha? Does Chase call the girl when he gets home from the reunion? Is the guy at the end of “Dawn” really happy, or was that a false epiphany? Those kinds of questions. I have my answers, but I like to discuss these things. And now that the book is out, of course, my answers are not final.
I felt a little guilty since I didn’t address those things at all in these posts. The resolutions felt clear to me – of course Bill and Alisha get together, but they later come apart as most couples do. Chase doesn’t need to call the girl any more, he’s going to work on getting his shit together for real, and he’s probably going to lose it again, but he’ll even out as time goes on and he realizes war and sex are neither necessary nor sufficient for manhood. It doesn’t matter where Tesfay finished, he’s going to be fine. The guy in “Dawn,” well, that I had some trouble with; it was the story I least liked (hey, there’s gotta be one, or I’m not being honest) so I’d rather think about all the other wonderful people I met in these pages. But I’d love to discuss other opinions; maybe someone will change my mind.
And finally, I asked about the cover of the book. The Acknowledgment mention his brother did the design; was there anything he’d like to share about that?
Oh, man, I thought my brother was going to never talk to me again at one point. I’m just not a visual art guy. I can go to a museum and find something to like. Matisse moves me, for example. Maybe I just like bold colors. So I kind of said to Ben, “Here’s the manuscript, read it and come up with something.” He refused to do it without some collaboration from me. I had no good ideas. Originally, the best I had was to put all the animals from the last story on there: a red cobra, a dog, a chicken, a cow. I had in mind some weird, minimalist, neo-cubist thing. It didn’t work, because it was too busy for a small cover. Eventually, I said maybe he could just have the dog on there. He threw something together and I loved it. It was exactly what I wanted without knowing it. I feel like the deeper yellow around the two black figures calls forth another motif from a different story: the endless circles of “American as Berbere.” I was just really happy with it, after it was almost a disaster. I’m sure Ben’s glad it’s over, too! I’m a nightmare for an artist to work with, even though I was just trying not to be too picky.
Jake’s working on a satirical novel “about the adventures of a translator of a pretend language working for a government agency” and blogs at Workshop Heretic.