Everywhere a Book Is Waiting

The new issue of World Literature Today arrived in the mail this past week, and just in time—swinging back and forth as I am from sadness to despair to a cold anger that needs to be fed by increased political engagement, I find I need literature more than ever to help ground me.

So what a gift, to read this passage from an interview with the Macedonian novelist Lidija Dimkovska:

“In my school the teachers preferred to say that books were our best friends. Not dogs, but books. As a child, even if I loved books more than everything else, I considered this a facile phrase. But over the years I realized that it is true: people in our life come and leave, relationships change, even best friends sometimes don’t have time for us. Human beings, being flexible, dynamic, and busy, cannot stay with us all the time. But books can. Always and everywhere a book is waiting for me.”

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I both agree and disagree with Dimkovska. I think she underestimates how friends and family stay with us as interior presences, whether they’re near or far (or for good or ill). But books, yes, books wait for us. In my study I’m surrounded by them: walls of what I’ve read and what I want to.

Among those waiting books are the ones I’ve kept returning to over the years, and these days I find myself especially drawn to books of poetry. One such book, as dog-eared and binding-cracked as can be, is (Asian Figures), a collection of proverbs and aphorisms from seven Asian countries, translated by the American poet W.S. Merwin.

These proverbs and such, presented by Merwin as poems never more than three lines long, are little nuggets of often cynical wisdom. Some land like a punchline, others reward lingering for a deeper unfolding.

From Korea:

Tree grows the way they want it to
that’s the one they cut first
*
Blind
blames the ditch
*
Even sideways
if it gets you there
*
Even on dog turds
the dew falls
*
Champion
shadow boxer

From Burma:

When you’ve died once
you know how
*
Telling a fish
about water
*
Eats all he wants
then upsets the dish

From China:

Before you beat a dog
find out whose he is
*
The rich
are never as ugly
*
After winning
Comes losing
*
Books don’t empty words
Words don’t empty thoughts

That last proverb would certainly start the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa’s head nodding. Pessoa was a poet who created a series of alternate personalities—heteronyms, he called them—who each wrote their own distinctive poetries. They all balanced inside him—Alberto Caiero, Ricardo Reis, Alvaro de Campos, and Bernardo Soares, among many others. Pessoa spent his entire adult life juggling these various aspects of himself, creating his own internal literary salon.

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The following untitled poem, one of the relatively rare poems written under Pessoa’s own name, is a kind of road map of his life’s work. And yet, as personal as it is, it speaks a truth we often ignore about the multiple possibilities within ourselves.

I’m a fugitive.
I was shut up in myself
As soon as I was born,
But I managed to flee.

If people get tired
Of being in the same place,
Why shouldn’t they tire
Of having the same self?

My soul seeks me out,
But I keep on the run
And sincerely hope
I’ll never be found.

Oneness is a prison.
To be myself is not to be.
I’ll live as a fugitive
But live really and fully.

(from A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe: Selected Poems, translated by Richard Zenith)

I can’t remember now what first led me, back in the late 1970s, to the work of the Serbian poet Vasko Popa—maybe an approving review by the poet Charles Simic, another favorite of mine? Popa wrote his main body of work when Serbia was still a part of the now-extinct country of Yugoslavia, and some of his poetry, as the years have passed, seem to be to be predictive of that break-up, of the flawed human urges that helped create the Balkan Wars of the 1990s.

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One of the most powerful sections in his Collected Poems (translated by Anne Pennington), titled “Games,” uses the conceit of the structure of play to reveal an elemental something else that is not playful at all. This poem is perhaps my favorite in the sequence:

Some bite off the others’
Arm or leg or whatever

Take it between their teeth
Run off as quick as they can
Bury it in the earth

The others run in all directions
Sniff search sniff search
Turn up all the earth

If any are lucky enough to find their arm
Or leg or whatever
It’s their turn to bite

The game goes on briskly

As long as there are arms
As long as there are legs
As long as there is anything whatever

Perhaps this poem is a little too close to home these days. Let’s try another poem about play, written by an eleven-year old boy, Tozu Norio. It’s from the collection There are Two Lives: Poems by Children of Japan, edited by Richard Lewis. Torio’s poem offers us a glorious dizzy ride, bringing us back to the time in our lives when, even if only once, all we wanted was for recess to never, ever end.

Ten Thousand Years’ Play

I got into the ocean and played.
I played on the land too.
I also played in the sky.
I played with the devil’s children in the clouds.
I played with shooting stars in space.
I played too long and years passed.
I played even when I became a tottering old man.
My beard was fifteen feet long.
Still I played.
Even when I was resting, my dream was playing.
Finally I played with the sun, seeing which one of us could be redder.
I had already played for ten thousand years.
Even when I was dead, I still played.
I looked at children playing, from the sky.

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It’s dark outside now, the sun sets much too early these days, which adds to my sour mood about the state of today’s politics, and what the future will bring come January. I’m ready for the defense of what I hold dear about the promise of my country, and I’ll be reading from my “best friends” on the shelves in my study, letting them help sustain me, borrowing from their strength. As the Chinese proverb says,

Enough mosquitos
Sound like thunder

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November 22nd, 2016 by admin

Think Good Thoughts

Now that we have elected a frightening man-baby to become the 45th President of the United States, many commentators have observed that we are entering “uncharted territory.”

But that’s not true at all.

The territory has already been charted, in an episode of Twilight Zone titled “It’s a Good Life.”

In this episode, all that is left of earth is the tiny town of Peaksville, Ohio. The rest of the world has been destroyed by a six-year old child, Anthony Freemont, who has unlimited mental powers. Anthony is pure, uncontrolled id, and he can create and destroy at will, though he mostly enjoys destroying. He can read minds, too, so you better think good thoughts. He terrorizes the few remaining adults in the world, including his mother and father. The only frail hope of reining him in is to praise whatever latest monstrous deed he has committed. “It’s good what you did, Anthony, real good,” is the episode’s common, fearful, fawning refrain.

Billy Mumy, the orange-haired (I kid you not) child actor, gives a chilling, memorable performance.

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The episode first aired in November of 1961, and here are some of the highlights:

Already, the man-baby who will be president is sending out dead-of-the-night angry tweets about the New York Times and its election coverage. He has no respect for or understanding of the First Amendment, and that’s certainly just one small example of his vast store of ignorance. And as for his seemingly bottomless anger issues, two days before the election he actually threw out of one of his rallies a wheelchair-bound boy with cerebral palsy who had the temerity of raising a Hillary sign.

Remember, until January 20th, he’s still a private citizen. What will this man-baby do or say once he takes hold of the vast powers of the presidency? I can already imagine his aides tip-toeing around him, saying as gently as possible, “It’s good what you did, Mr. President, real good.”

“It’s a Good Life” is a deeply unsettling episode under any circumstances, but in light of the 70-year old monster-child who will soon be the most powerful human on earth, it’s almost unbearable to watch, a Coming Attractions for the worst possible nightmare of our future. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that our future “leader” doesn’t have super powers, and he can’t read minds.

If you can bear it, here’s the entire episode.

“It’s a Good Life” isn’t the only prescient warning from our past. In 1998, the great Octavia E. Butler published The Parable of the Talents, which imagined the end of the United States. In the beginning of the novel one of the main characters, Taylor Franklin Bankole, says,

“I have read that the period of upheaval that journalists have begun to refer to as “the Apocalypse” or more commonly, more bitterly, “the Pox” lasted from 2015 through 2030—a decade and a half of chaos. This is untrue. The Pox has been a much longer torment. It began well before 2015, perhaps even before the turn of the millennium. It has not ended.

“I have also read that the Pox was caused by accidentally coinciding climatic, economic, and sociological crises. It would be more honest to say that the Pox was caused by our own refusal to deal with obvious problems in those areas. We caused those problems: then we sat and watched as they grew into crises. I have heard people deny this, but I was born in 1970. I have seen enough to know that it is true. I have watched education become more a privilege of the rich than the basic necessity that it must be if civilized society is to survive. I have watched as convenience, profit, and inertia excused greater and more dangerous environmental degradation. I have watched poverty, hunger, and disease become inevitable for more and more people.”

By the way, the fictional and authoritarian American president of this novel has his own motto: Make American Great Again.

Again, I kid you not.

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The literary critic Gerry Canavan offers an excellent overview of Butler’s book here.

So, only a TV show, only a novel?

Think good thoughts.

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November 17th, 2016 by admin

The Country We Want Our Country To Be

I don’t write much about politics directly on this website, probably because I assume my liberal sensibility pervades much of what I offer here about the art of writing and literature anyway.

Today will be different. After this long and monstrous election cycle and its unspeakably monstrous result, I feel flattened, and I know so many others who feel the same way. And so I offer “Parable,” a prose poem by the great Wislawa Szymborska (winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize for Literature):

Some fishermen pulled a bottle from the deep. It held a piece
of paper, with these words: “Somebody save me! I’m here. The
ocean cast me on this desert island. I am standing on the shore
waiting for help. Hurry! I’m here!”

“There’s no date. I bet it’s already too late anyway. It could
have been floating for years,” the first fisherman said.

“And he doesn’t say where. It’s not even clear which ocean,”
the second fisherman said.

“It’s not too late, or too far. The island Here is everywhere,”
the third fisherman said.

They all felt awkward. No one spoke. That’s how it goes with
universal truths.

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So Here many of us are, crushed. Time to get up. Time to get angry and stay determined. I’m inspired by my daughter, Hannah, who yesterday walked out of her college literature class because her professor wouldn’t let the shell-shocked students speak at all about the election, or even take a short break to see Hillary’s concession speech (the class subject of the day was: Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady; what a missed teaching opportunity that was). Brave young woman! Later in the day she took part in a giant protest march in NYC from Union Square to Trump Tower.

The Obama years are over, unfortunately, and what is coming will look nothing like them. Yes, we are all separate souls, all in need of individual help, but we are also Here together, not alone at all, not distant, not lost, and it’s time, yet again, to stand up for the country we want our country to be.

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November 10th, 2016 by admin

More Quiet Than You Can Imagine

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As I mentioned in my last post, in the mid to late-1970s I was a bit of an itinerant creative writing teacher. I worked for the Virginia Poets-in-the-Schools program and traveled from school district to school district, teaching creative writing to elementary, middle, and high school students.

I also held teaching and writing residencies during the summers at the Richmond Humanities Center, and Norfolk’s Center Theater. I was so busy that I actually managed to make something approaching a living. For the Norfolk Theater, I taught adult classes, nursing home residents and inmates at the Norfolk jail. I also wrote a few longish prose poems that the theater’s resident dance troupe would perform (these pieces, “Silence,” “Shadow,” and “The Distance,” eventually made their way into my short story collection, The Art of the Knock).

The classes at the nursing home didn’t start out too well. I made the mistake of using some of the exercises I’d honed in my teaching to middle and high school students, like the “verbal dueling” form I discussed in my previous post. There I stood, a twenty-something young man enthusiastically pitching magical transformations to a group of elderly people. One man grumbled that this was “kid stuff,” and everyone else in the room nodded in agreement.

What to do?

I knew that the poet Kenneth Koch had written a book about teaching writing in a nursing home, I Never Told Anybody, and I belatedly searched out a copy, in the hopes that I could redeem myself in the next class meeting, only a week away. Finally paging through the book, I came upon a section titled “Quiet,” and I thought I’d give this a try. Old people liked quiet, right?

Today, in my last few hours as a 63 year old (I’m on the cusp of being the subject of a Beatles song!), I think, Quiet? Anything but!

And sure enough, the initial reaction to the Quiet assignment wasn’t promising. Luckily, a single line in one of the examples Koch gave from one of his nursing home students stood out:

The quietest time I ever remember in my life
Was when they took off my leg.

Here was a quiet that had nothing to do with a peaceful sunset. This memory had some teeth in it. And only then did my elderly students dig in. I wish I could find the examples of their writing now, but apparently they’ve been lost in one of too many moves in the past. But I do remember one poem that spoke of a man’s nearly drowning, seeing the bubbles of his breath reaching up to the water’s surface that he couldn’t yet reach. It was a powerful moment, a perfect blend of quiet and drama. And it opened up a host of varied memories in the other students, because quiet, as it turned out, has many different flavors.

I’d managed to salvage that class, so I wondered if this exercise might transfer to different types of students. I was also leading a writing workshop with prisoners at the Norfolk City Jail.

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I decided to give it a try and discovered another kind of quiet, in this unsettling student poem:

The quietest moment that I can remember
was when I first arrived in Vietnam
and stepped from inside the plane. It seemed
as though all the bombing stopped, and the
killing ceased, the workers who were building
the remaining parts of the airstrip stopped their
work. It seemed as though someone dropped
a needle among the haystack of dead bodies
and I heard it as it fell through the air.

–Ellery P.,
Norfolk City Jail

This writing exercise soon developed legs. Even young people, of course, host powerful memories (Flannery O’Connor would certainly agree), so the following fall I brought my inmate and nursing home students’ examples to the high schools I traveled to.

It was 2:17 in the morning
when the next door neighbor
had a stroke.
My mother went over there—
there was no sound
of their watchdog barking
because of her entrance in the yard.
She forced open the back door and
the watchdog was silently
lying in the corner.

–Laura Travis
Manchester High School, Virginia

What impresses me most about this poem is that it isn’t the student’s own memory, but a story that had been told to her by her mother. And yet it seems remembered, the image of the normally threatening guard dog transformed into a quiet, mourning pet becoming the writer’s own.

I discovered that there was nearly no end to the types of quiet that could be conjured from memory, as in this poem of temporary quiet and its jarring end:

The quietest moment I can remember is when I fell off a roof.
The moment my foot left it all time slowed down then stopped.
I was floating down to the ground, all was quiet.
When I hit the ground the peace was broken like a glass.

–André Baskins
Matoaca High School, Virginia

And this last poem achingly combines external joy with internal sadness:

When I was small, I became very sick.
I had to stay home from school and couldn’t see any of my friends.
As I looked out my window, I saw all the other kids in my neighborhood,
next door playing a game I liked.
They were all yelling and making a lot of noise.
They were having fun.
But from up in my window, looking down upon this scene, inside I felt
very quiet.

–Kim Hawkins,
Charlottesville High School, Virginia

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Those early teaching days of mine certainly focused my respect for the art of pedagogy, and above all for its unpredictable discoveries. My idea of “quiet” until then had been fairly ordinary—soothing silence, mostly. But my students taught me more than I taught them. They gave me something to take out of the classroom: a sense that the world offered layer upon unsuspected layer, if one only chose to look or listen.

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August 25th, 2015 by admin

If This Thing Came to You, What Would You Choose?

As I mentioned in my previous post, there are many ways to reinvent the endgame of a story, and one of my favorite examples is a form of African oral literature called Dilemma Tales.

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These sorts of tales are truly “oral” literature, and don’t necessarily travel well to the page, outside the event of their telling. That’s because the greatest energy of dilemma tales comes from an audience’s response to the story, which poses some moral or narrative conundrum, one that can be answered by anyone listening. In small villages, African folk tales are often told in a group setting, at night, with people of all ages sitting and listening by fire or lamplight. With a dilemma tale, they get to participate. As the folklorist William Bascom writes, because such narratives “leave the listeners with a choice between alternatives,” they “evoke spirited discussions, and they train those who participate in the skills of debate and argumentation.”

Here’s an eerie dilemma tale from the Bura people of Nigeria, “The Leftover Eye”:

“Pay heed to this tale. It is a tale of things that have never happened. But we will suppose these things did happen for certainly such things are possible.

“This is a tale of a man who was blind. His mother, too, was blind. His wife and his wife’s mother were also blind. They dwelt together in a wretched condition; their farm was poor and their home was badly built. They consulted together and decided to go away. They would journey until they came to some place where their lot would be better.

“They set out and traveled along the road. As they walked, the man stumbled over something. He picked it up and felt it, and then knew that he had come upon seven eyes. He immediately gave two eyes to his wife, and then took two for himself. Of the three eyes remaining to him, he gave one to his mother and another to his wife’s mother. He was left with one eye in his hand. Kai, this was a startling thing. Here was his mother with her one eye looking at him hopefully. There was his wife’s mother with her one eye looking at him hopefully. To whom should he give the leftover eye?

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“If he gives the eye to his mother he will forever be ashamed before his wife and her mother. If he gives it to his wife’s mother, he will fear the angry and disappointed heart of his own mother. A mother, know you, is not something to be played with.

“This is difficult indeed. There is the sweetness of his wife. She is good and loving. How can he hurt her? Yet his mother, too, is a good mother and loving. Can he thus injure her? Which would be easier, and which would be the right way to do this thing?

“If this thing would come to you, which would you choose?”

Some tough choices here. I often teach this story to my undergraduate fiction students, when we’re discussing story structure and story endings. I throw that last line at them and ask them to respond. There are always inventive suggestions, but what quickly becomes clear is how hard it is to resolve the story in any neat way. The two mothers, for example could simply share the extra eye, each week one of them fully sighted, the other not. But is this really a solution, especially when the older women fall into vicious fights when the time for the switch arrives?

Or what if the husband takes out one of his eyes, so each mother could then have two eyes? How respectful and self-sacrificing of him! Problem solved, right? But then, with his one eye he notices the looks of pity his mother and mother-in-law begin to direct his way, and worse, he sees the lingering glances his wife bestows on passing two-eyed men . . .

This is what I love about dilemma tales, aside from the raucous fun of listeners challenging each other’s choices: they make it clear that narratives don’t like to be so easily tucked into bed and instead much prefer kicking off the sheets and throwing some pillows. Every ending has lurking within it a “but then,” or “what if” or “even though.”

Good to remember, that any fictional ending really is a stage set for further, though unwritten, possibilities. Just like our messy, unpredictable lives.

*

“The Leftover Eye,” can be found in African Myths & Tales, edited by Susan Feldmann.

The quotes from William Bascom are from his article “African Dilemma Tales: an Introduction,” in African Folklore, edited by Richard M. Dorson.

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May 24th, 2015 by admin

That Hidden Second Story

I’m back on the beat as the fiction editor of Ninth Letter, after a hiatus as the nonfiction editor and as an “editor-at-large” for the magazine’s website. I have to say, it’s good to be back.

Recently we had an editorial meeting about a story that the assistant editors liked enough to “bring to table” –a final meeting in which we make a decision about acceptance or rejection.

The story in question had many strengths, and it was obvious why we were now giving it serious consideration. But something was missing, we all felt this, and instead we decided to write a letter encouraging the author to send us more work, perhaps even try us again with a revision of what we’d just passed on.

So what was missing?

My long-ago writing mentor, the extraordinary fiction writer and poet Grace Paley, might have said that the second story was missing. In workshops, all those years ago when I was an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence College, she would often observe that any single short story was really two stories: the one on the page, and the one behind or beneath it that the words on the page pointed to. Discovering this is not easy. To quote Grace Paley again (now from one of her stories), “There is a long time in me between knowing and telling.”

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So what is this mysterious second story?

I’ll give an example from a short story I recently taught, Ann Beattie’s “The Burning House.” A dinner party is described in a seemingly roundabout, even random manner, gossip is shared, mud is tracked in the house by a dog, dishes are washed, a child’s sleepover is negotiated by phone, a guest arrives late. No house actually burns down. But as the evening and the story proceed, it becomes clear that the family hosting this party is indeed “burning down,” heading toward an inevitable end game, and that the various dinner guests are in the midst of their own invisible flames. The author doesn’t need to overtly point this out for a reader to see the conflagration of the second story that has slowly revealed itself.

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As I tell my students, often a first draft offers little or no sign of that second story. The author might not yet fully suspect what’s hiding behind the plot, what secret motivations are fueling the characters’ complications and the story’s nascent energy. In that first draft (and, sometimes sadly, many more drafts after that!) you’ve made it inside the story you’ll eventually finish, but you’re only in the foyer. It may actually be a nicely decorated foyer, but you don’t want to mistake it for the entire building. If, during revision, you merely concentrate on shifting word choices, honing physical description, even sculpting a scene a bit better, you will keep that story stuck in the entryway. Don’t necessarily try to fix what is already there on the page, try instead to suss out what is waiting to be discovered. For instance, why has a young man become a kind of second son to his boss, and just how strong or fragile is that unspoken fictive kinship?

To quote Grace Paley once more, “You write from what you know, but you write into what you don’t know.” In this way, you take your first true steps out of the original conception of your story and you begin to exit the foyer. And just in time, too. There’s a staircase that awaits you, and a hallway that leads you to a closed door.

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What’s on the other side of that door on the first floor? Your main character’s fear, perhaps, of a possible future abandonment in her final years.

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And at the top of the stairs? Another room, where a character dreams a dream so intense he doesn’t know you’ve opened the door and entered.

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But you linger only briefly. There’s so much more, you now realize, to explore elsewhere.

*

Related posts you might enjoy:
Welcome to a Hidden World
The Hidden Face

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February 12th, 2015 by admin

My Mambo King

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Of all the photos taken of him, the image above captures best, I think, the man who was my friend for thirty-eight years. Oscar Hijuelos and I met in graduate school at City College in 1975, two young writers in Frederick Tuten’s fiction workshop. Oscar was shy, even deferential to the other writers in the workshop, but when he first read his work to us in class, his head bowed over the pages on the desk, his voice low, everyone recognized his enormous talent.

We became friends, visiting each other often in his apartment on the Upper West Side or the house I was renting with old college friends north of the city. We read each other’s manuscripts (and continued to do so over the years), discovered that we were born within two days (and only a few miles) of each other, and we talked about our life-or-death love of literature, drank and joked and ate at any Cuban-Chinese restaurant we came upon in New York. To say Oscar had a good sense of humor is not quite right—he had a great sense of amusement, about everything in the world (and he also had a great curious appetite for everything in the world), and when I hear Oscar’s voice in my mind (and I listen to him a lot these days), I can hear his restrained chuckle, or the casual bemusement in the very tone of his speaking. That slight, gentle smile in the photo says it all.

When my wife Alma and I spent the summer of 1987 in New York City with our then months-old son Nathaniel, we rented an apartment a few blocks from Oscar’s place. He was just back from living abroad (he’d won a Rome Prize for his first novel, Our House in the Last World). Our first night in town, we walked over to Oscar’s, to introduce him to our first child. We were shocked at his hollowed-out apartment—he’d inadvertently gotten into a little trouble with the IRS over taxes while he was in Rome, and now he was selling his furniture piece by piece to raise money. As we spoke, my son began wailing in my arms, and Oscar reached over to a nearly empty shelf, picked up a kalimba, and began improvising a serenade.

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Almost immediately Nathaniel calmed down, and without hesitation Oscar made us a present of the instrument—one of his last possessions. That generosity was typical of Oscar. You can see that kindness in the photo, as well as some of the sadness that was never far away, through all the decades that I knew him, through success as well as failure.

The evening of Oscar’s wake, Alma and I took the train in from Princeton, where we’ve been living this fall, and then the subway to the Upper West Side, landing just a few blocks from the visitation. We’d arrived early, and because I wasn’t quite ready to put the stamp of finality on my friend’s sudden death, Alma and I walked about the neighborhood, which was filled with memories of when Oscar and I had first forged our friendship. At the wake we paid our respects to Oscar’s beloved wife Lori, who in her grief was overwhelmed by the large crowd of friends and family there to offer support. Oscar’s casket rested in a corner, and for a few minutes I foolishly spoke to it as if my friend could hear me from inside.

Later, Alma and I walked to the nearby Cuban-Chinese restaurant La Caridad 78 (“Comidas China y Criolla”), where Oscar and I had often taken a meal.

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The same spare décor, the heaping plates of food, and speakers in the walls played salsa music, the same joyful music Oscar had written about in his Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. It wasn’t the best meal I’ve had, but it tasted of history, and loss, and love, too: fried rice and beans, hunks of tender chicken, Chinese vegetables. By the end of our meal, I noticed a young couple at a nearby table, enjoying a side order of plantains.

I nodded toward the table and said to Alma, “I forgot to order plantains. The meal doesn’t seem right without some.”

“It’s not too late to order,” she replied, but our meal was almost done, the moment for that really had passed.

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Yet after I paid the bill and we gathered our coats, I found myself approaching the couple, and I explained that I’d just left the wake of a dear friend, and he and I had often eaten at this restaurant, and I’d forgotten to order a plate of what we’d always ordered, plantains, and would it be all right if I could have just one piece?

They happily agreed, offered me the entire plate, but no, a single slice would do. Then Alma and I thanked them and left, walking down the street to the subway station, while I nibbled slowly at my slice of plantain, each bite another little goodbye.

*

For another remembrance of Oscar Hijuelos, which includes Oscar’s take on what constitutes a writer’s afterlife, you can visit this entry of the Ninth Letter blog.

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The beautiful photo of Oscar Hijuelos was taken by Dario Acosta.

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November 24th, 2013 by admin

To Remain a Witness

I recently read, via a recommendation from the marvelous website The Dish, an essay by Amber Forcey titled “There Are No “Good Old Days.” Forcey laments the very notion that the past is preferable to our current sorry state of affairs in the present. She focuses her argument on the popular television series “Downtown Abbey.” Even when episodes refer to the horrors of the early 20th century, she says,

“the Titanic sinking, a World War, the Spanish flu – seem to serve mostly as fodder for the characters’ personal dramas, not as an honest depiction of the problems of this time. However, a careful reading of any history textbook – or solid work of 20th century British literature – will reveal that this was time and place of great upheaval, one plagued with war, disease, and its own versions of “crimes against humanity,” not to mention the debasing treatment of women and minorities throughout most of the western world. We dream nostalgically about this time as we watch; but, if we are truly aware of the evils and trouble of these decades, given the option, none of us would chose to revert back to such a time.”

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Forcey then does a nice turn by writing about the short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor. “The irony of the tale,” Forcey writes, “is that a good man is hard to find, not because of the times, but because there are no good men – then or now – except for One.” Though the murderous Misfit might disagree with that last point, since he faults Jesus for the irrevocable mistake of raising the dead: “He thrown everything off balance.” The only logical alternative to following a religious path, according to the Misfit, is simple, dedicated mayhem: “No pleasure but in meanness.”

The mention of O’Connor’s iconic short story reminded me of another–though much less well-known—classic of American literature written about the same time, the poet Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony.

Reznikoff was trained as a lawyer (though he only practiced briefly), and the source of the poems is actual trial testimony (from the years 1885-1915) that he’d discovered while working on court records. Unable to turn away from the stories of suffering he’d encountered, Reznikoff instead turned the essence of those testimonies into poems, short verse narratives that, example by example, increasingly haunt the reader. Testimony is a harrowing book that can’t be put down. Here’s a taste of its mayhem and tragedy and unexpected trouble:

It was nearly daylight when she gave birth to the child,
lying on the quilt
he had doubled up for her.
He put the child on his left arm
and took it out of the room,
and she could hear the splashing of water.
When he came back she asked him where the child was.
He replied: “Out there—in the water.”

He punched up the fire
and returned with an armload of wood
and the child,
and put the dead child into the fire.
She said, “O John, don’t!”
He did not reply
but turned to her and smiled.

**

The child was about eight years old.
For some misconduct or other,
his father stripped him naked, threw him on the floor,
and beat him with a piece of rubber pipe,
crying “Die, God damn you!”
He tried to dash the child against the brick surface of the chimney,
and flung the child again heavily on the floor
and stamped on him.

**

Arnold heard the blowing of the whistle:
the train was coming.
The only light was that of a small lamp
behind the shutters of the station,
and it gave at best
a weak light on the platform.
The night was dark and cloudy.
In trying to pass from the platform to the ground
where passengers boarded the train,
he could not see the steps that led from the platform:
slipped
and fell.

**

One of them saw the smoke rising
when they went for dinner;
the wind had been blowing
strongly from the west
but had increased greatly in force
when they reached the fire.

The fire had crossed the ditch:
there had been a dry spell
and there was no water in the ditch—
or neighborhood.
They had only shovels
to keep the fire from spreading;
and the soil was peat,
covered with moss and grass,
all dry and highly flammable.

**

He was committed to prison in default of bail
and sent down in the van
with two other prisoners,
one drunk and spewing. In the prison,
he received two narrow blankets and a tin dish;
no knife or fork. Slept on the floor.
The room was filthy.
The stool had no cover;
the men made water in it at night,
and it ran over.

**

He entered the store with barley sacks upon his feet
and a barley sack over his head—
holes cut in front through which to look—
and carried a shotgun,
both barrels loaded with birdshot.

But the barley sack upon one of his feet
caught on something at the end of the counter;
the mask became displaced so that he could not see,
and the gun was jerked from his hand.

Even a cursory reading of these spare, intense poems will cure any sentimentalist from nostalgia for an idealized past. Which is perhaps why this masterpiece—a masterpiece of poetry but also of nonfiction, since all these stories are “true,” the words lifted from court documents and arranged into “found” poems—is so little known, because its lessons are so unwanted. But masterpiece it is, and Paul Auster comes close to capturing its essential power:

“To find a comparable approach to the real, one would have to go back to the great prose writers of the turn of the century. As in Chekov or in early Joyce, the desire is to allow events to speak for themselves, to choose the exact detail that will say everything and thereby allow as much as possible to remain unsaid. This kind of restraint paradoxically requires an openness of spirit that is available to very few: an ability to accept the given, to remain a witness of human behavior and not succumb to the temptation of becoming a judge.”

Michael Heller chimes in: “It is as much craft as content which produces the effect. The reader is made to feel the flow of event go by, to participate only as a witness. There are no imperial gestures in the language, barely an attempt to explain, let alone interpret.”

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Testimony was originally published as the 500-page Testimony: The United States, 1885-1915–Recitative. It is long out of print, as is the much shorter version, Testimony: The United States 1885-1890–Recitative, published by New Directions, which is the version I am familiar with. This strange amalgam of poetry and nonfiction, historical record and carefully controlled yawp of empathy for forgotten lives deserves a literary resurrection.

Paul Auster and Michael Heller quotes are from On Testimony.

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March 10th, 2013 by admin

The Secret History of Objects

I have long felt there is no such thing as an inanimate object. In our homes, for instance, we surround ourselves with things, and those things are there for a reason: some quality about them has caused us to choose them. A piece of driftwood, placed on a shelf, may have been collected during a memorable day by the shore, and so now that simple twist of wood is animated—the mere sight of it can bring back a significant moment in time.

On the other hand, the shape of a vase and its color might please us in ways that can’t quite be articulated, and yet we choose that vase over others in a store and then feature it on a table in the living room. An artist, of course, shaped this, and something of his or her aesthetic vision has echoed inside us. By choosing that vase we have entered into a relationship with it and, by extension, the artist who sculpted it.

In The Meaning of Things, authors Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton speak of these relationships: “To understand what people are and what they might become, one must understand what goes on between people and things. What things are cherished, and why, should become part of our knowledge of human beings . . . Things also tell us who we are, not in words, but by embodying our intentions.”

From the beginning, my fiction has been entranced by and attracted to what things might tell us about ourselves. My 1979 short story, “Light Bulbs” (collected in The Art of the Knock: Stories), chronicled how an “empty nest” couple slowly developed relationships with the light bulbs in their home, as a substitute for their departed children:

“Father finds himself attracted to the sound of the bulbs as they go out—some with a kind of smoky burst, some with a faint, regretful pop. It’s as if they all had their own secret reasons for leaving. He also can’t avoid noticing the way the old bulbs fit into the palm of his hand like the warm head of an infant. Father keeps this to himself. He has begun to spend more of his time at night watching the lights and less with Mother at the bay window.”

You can read the entire story here (if you have a digital subscription to The New Yorker)

In 1997, while in preparation for a book tour for the paperback edition of my novel, How to Read an Unwritten Language, I was interviewed by Richard Shea for the Princeton Packet’s Time Off magazine, and our conversation eventually wandered over to the subject of objects in my fiction:

Graham: “I’ve always believed that objects are part of our personalities. And in a lot of my stories objects are used as an element of characterization; what we most love, what we surround ourselves with are really projections of internal states.”

Shea: “Which is ironic, seeing that we live in a country where, often, too much value is placed on material things. But you seem to be talking about the other side of the coin.”

Graham: “I think that placing too much value on objects as mere objects is a dead end, yes. But if we take a look sometimes at the fact that those objects actually echo our inner states . . . “materialism” is almost a false issue. I’m in my study right now, and I’m looking around the room, and everything I’m looking at is human-generated. What that means is everything around me was initially thought of by somebody else, and then made into an object, which means, in some sense, that what we’re looking at is the physical representation of neuro-synaptic connections. We’re, like, in a mind; we’re inside a collective human mind of creation and invention. And that’s what we live in as human beings.”

In this interview I was ripping off, and rather inarticulately, one of my fictional characters: Josephine, the narrator of the title story of my collection Interior Design. Josephine is on a mission, as an interior designer, to expiate the sins of her father, a house developer who filled his model homes with ¾ sized furniture in order to fool his customers into thinking the rooms of the home they considered buying were much larger than they actually were. By contrast, Josephine works with her clients’ dreams, in order to design a more personalized home:

“It was those private designs that led me to the secret history of objects: they’re all the products of desire. The first chair didn’t just appear like some mushroom rising out of the floor. Instead, long ago, someone, somewhere, thought, “I’m tired,” and only then was a chair built, its wooden existence fitting the need. In the same way, the thought, “I’m cold,” conceived walls and a roof. We actually turn ourselves inside out, and find comfort in what we’ve imagined. If the guitar, the violin, the piano are extensions of us, created to give voice to our longings, then furniture is no less musical.”

In my novel How to Read an Unwritten Language, the narrator, Michael Kirby, falls in love in college with Kate, a young woman who is an aspiring artist. Yet Kate can only—will only—draw objects, never people. They seem alive to her, and Michael comes to realize that her drawings are a coded form of her hidden inner life. Frustrated by Kate’s emotional restraint, Michael manages to find a space where he can reach her, by asking her to draw his hand as if it—as if he—were an object.

I loved to sit beside Kate and watch her draw. Her fingers barely held the pencil—a light touch for such clarity—and her careful movements became a form of floating, a sign language somehow caught on paper. One evening, as Kate was about to begin another illustration, I placed my hand next to her notepad.

“Draw my hand?”

“Michael. You know . . . “

“It’s not a person,” I said, “it’s a hand. Quite an interesting piece of machinery, actually. C’mon, give it a try.”

Kate closed her eyes, sighed, and then looked down at my patient hand. Slowly, she began sketching the whorls of my knuckles, as if they were separate little whirlpools pulling her in. Next she drew those long-ridged bones that fanned from my wrist, and slowly the individual parts took hold of each other and grew fingers, took on the contours and shadows of flesh.

Finally she set down her pencil. My hand lay twinned before us. I gave her no time to choose between them: I turned mine over, palm up. “Draw it again?” I asked.

She did, first extending the particular curves and intersections of the lines of my palm, though no palm yet existed on the page. She continued that seemingly chaotic crosshatching until they led to my fingerprints, where she stopped. After a long pause, she drew the outline of my hand, then gave dimension to all the rounded slopes that circled the center of my palm. Again she hesitated, staring at those five fingers and their empty faces. Meticulously she gave expression to the delicate, echoing curves of my prints, adding slight shadows that hinted of sadness and anger, subdued joy, the possibility of laughter.

When she was done I stared at my hand and its image: indeed, both seemed filled with conflicting emotions.

“Now touch it?” I whispered. Kate hesitated, then laughed quietly with a hint of resignation. She slid one long-nailed finger along the lines of my palm, just lightly touching my skin: now we were pencil and page. But before she could finish tracing me, my fingers reached up and held her hand. Neither of us moved. I pulled her gently toward me. Her eyes narrowed with pleasure, then closed as we settled and twisted on the carpet, and I let her imagine a private sketch of what we did together.

*

With two nonfiction projects recently completed and published, I am returning to fiction, to two novels long in progress (though I’m also chipping away at a new nonfiction project–I tend to write several books at one time), and for me that also means a return to objects, and to the invisible threads that connect them to us, and us to them. They are the outposts of our imagination, physical clues to the shape of our interior lives, each one a hard fact echoing a fluid, fleeting feeling.

Other craft posts of interest: “The Threads That Tie Us to Objects,” and “Oh You Doll.”

The Art of the Knock, How to Read an Unwritten Language and Interior Design are now available in the Dzanc Books contemporary fiction e-book reprint series.

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December 22nd, 2012 by admin

Writing that Travels

“To see is to have seen,” said the great 20th century Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa. This seemingly simple sentence can be read more than one way. First, as a critique: we see mainly what we have already seen, that sight is a well-worn habit. Another interpretation suggests the opposite: that at its best sight is a form of understanding, arrived at only if we have truly seen through life’s visual static. Both interpretations, I think, are true, each the flip of the other.

Though for most of his adult life Pessoa lived solely in the city of Lisbon, rarely venturing outside its borders, he was a poet of inner travel. In his writing he invented a series of alter egos, personalities he called “heteronyms” (as opposed to mere pseudonyms), and he gave his three main creations names—Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, Álvaro de Campos—along with past histories, astrological charts, physical features and their own signatures. Most of all, each heteronym was a different poet, and each wrote a different poetry from the others.

Pessoa created out of his own conflicting inner voices a literary salon, and the leader of them (and first to be created) was Alberto Caeiro, a poet of nature and clarity of vision. The identity and poetry of Caeiro came to Pessoa in a flash on day in March 1914, and over the next three days he wrote (transcribed?) Caeiro’s masterpiece, a book titled The Keeper of Sheep. This book had a particular vision that influenced—by their own admission—the work of the other heteronyms, and for me, that vision is perhaps best summed up in the 45th poem in that collection.

A row of tress in the distance, toward the slope . . .
But what is a row of trees? There are just trees.
“Row” and the plural “trees” are names, not things.

Unhappy human beings, who put everything in order,
Draw lines from thing to thing,
Place labels with names on absolutely real trees,
And plot parallels of latitude and longitude
On the innocent earth itself, which is so much greener
And full
Of flowers!

(translation by Richard Zenith, in Fernando Pessoa & Co.)

After reading this poem I find that it affects the way I look at a tree, or any natural phenomenon, and how each tree, or bush or flower is its one distinct self, which is obscured by mental and visual static when we add an abstraction to its description. Language can cast invisible expectations on what we think we simply see, as if seeing was simple! I thought I knew what a tree looked like.

Pessoa’s poem took me someplace I might never have otherwise arrived at. The best writing, whether non-fiction, fiction or poetry, is potentially a type of travel writing, and a reader experiences a complex imaginative work as a form of travel. Every work of literature should offer a journey, the challenge of an interior mapping that might lead a reader to him or herself. Writing that travels is the literature of any reader’s need for an inner journey.

Travel isn’t simply a geographical exercise. A journey into the land of adolescence, for example, is perhaps the loneliest type of travel there is, as we leave behind the carapace of our childhood and molt into the fraught emotional territory of adulthood. The entry into parenthood can be as shocking and bracing a form of travel as can be imagined. So too is the slow arch of committed negotiation that is the travel of marriage, or any long-term relationship, the intricate balance of one partner’s love with the other’s. The acceptance of one’s sexual orientation or identity is another form of travel, from one state of personal understanding to another.

My favorite city in the world is Lisbon, and it’s a marvelous town to wander, especially with its winding streets and distinctive neighborhoods, nestled among many hills. Throughout the city you will come upon what is known as a miradouro (“golden view”), a small park or plaza on an urban ridge overlooking the vast expanse of Lisbon, each one a new perspective on a city whose beauty keeps changing.

These vistas remind me of places I’ve been in my reading life that expanded my perspective, that helped me to see anew what I thought I had already seen or thought I understood. What follows here is a small collection of miradouros I’ve come upon in some of my favorite books.

In the novel Sacred Country by the British writer Rose Tremain, it’s 1952 and six year old Mary Ward is standing in the snowy yard outside her home with her family—mother, father, brother. They are participating in a nation-wide two-minute pause of silence, out of respect for the recently deceased King George VI. One immediately gets the sense that this is a family unaccustomed to silence; in fact, we get the sense that some of these characters are screaming inside. Mary, however, manages to find her place within this imposed silence, and it changes her life.

“She tried another prayer for the king, but the words blew away like paper. She wiped the sleet from her glasses with the back of her mittened hand. She stared at her family, took them in, one, two, three of them, quiet at last but not as still as they were meant to be, not like the plumed men guarding the king’s coffin, not like bulrushes in a lake. And then, hearing the familiar screech of her guinea fowl coming from near the farmhouse, she thought, I have some news for you, Marguerite, I have a secret to tell you, dear, and this is it: I am not Mary. That is a mistake. I am not a girl. I’m a boy.

“This is how and when it began, the long journey of Mary Ward.”

So too begins Tremain’s novel, in which Mary slowly forges herself into Martin, the person she knows herself to truly be. A sacred country, Tremain tells us, is where one’s singular soul lives, and at times it can be a harrowing journey to find it, and sometimes an equally difficult journey to accept it.

“Lost Letters,” the first chapter in Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, tells the story of Mirek, a dissident Czech essayist who became a well-known personality during his country’s Prague Spring. However, after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 Mirek is in danger of being arrested. He should be disposing of his writings and communications with other dissidents before the police finally take it upon themselves to search his apartment, but first he feels he must retrieve the passionate letters he wrote years ago to his first lover, Zdena.

The first section of “Lost Letters,” however, has nothing to do with Mirek and those letters; instead, it opens with an ironic historical footnote:

“In February 1948, Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony of a Baroque palace to address the hundreds of thousands of his fellow citizens packed into Old Town Square. It was a crucial moment in Czech history—a fateful moment of the kind that occurs once or twice in a millennium.

“Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clementis standing next to him. There were snow flurries, it was cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. The solicitous Clementis took off his own fur cap and set it on Gottwald’s head.

“The Party propaganda section put out hundreds of thousands of copies of a photograph of that balcony with Gottwald, a fur cap on his head and comrades at his side, speaking to the nation. On that balcony the history of Communist Czechoslovakia was born. Every child knew the photograph from posters, schoolbooks, and museums.

“Four years later Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately airbrushed him out of history and, obviously, out of all the photographs as well. Ever since, Gottwald has stood on that balcony alone. Where Clementis once stood, there is only bare palace wall. All that remains of Clementis is the cap on Gottwald’s head.”

This opening section haunts the rest of the chapter, reminding us as we follow Mirek, a dissident opposed to a regime that is attempting to erase the memory of the freedoms of the Prague spring, that he himself is on a journey of erasure. Foolishly, he wants those letters back because he is ashamed Zdena was ugly, and that he was once in love with her, a fact of his life that undermines the playboy cavortings of a popular dissident he has until recently been enjoying. Mirek, we come to understand, is no different in this sense from the government he opposes. The impulses, evasions and oppressions of governments are little different, except in scale, of the same characteristics of individual citizens—a lesson that continues to inform my understanding of politics. But there’s also a much more personal lesson to be learned here, that as we, as individuals, move through time further from our former, younger selves, how tempting it can be to alter our memories so that they better fit with the assumptions of our present selves.

Another of my miradouros concerns itself with memory. Here is the opening of “Cousins,” from a memoir by Jo Ann Beard, The Boys of My Youth:

“Here is a scene. Two sisters are fishing together in a flat-bottomed boat on an olive green lake. They sit slumped like men, facing in opposite directions, drinking coffee out of a metal-sided thermos, smoking intently. Without their lipstick they look strangely weary, and passive. They both have a touch of morning sickness but neither is admitting it. Instead, they watch their bobbers and argue about worms versus minnows.

“My cousin and I are floating in separate, saline oceans. I’m the size of a cocktail shrimp and she’s the size of a man’s thumb. My mother is the one on the left, wearing baggy gabardine trousers and a man’s shirt. My cousin’s mother is wearing blue jeans, cuffed at the bottom, and a cotton blouse printed with wild cowboys roping steers. Their voices carry, as usual, but at this point we can’t hear them.”

All right, let’s first address the obvious. If this is a memoir, then how in the world can Beard offer these details, since at the time of the scene she was a fetus? A lot of opinions are out there about whether Beard’s book is a work of fiction or nonfiction, and it has been categorized as both over the years. Me, I have no problem with reading this scene as nonfiction. Beard is imagining a scene that very well could have happened—she knows her mother and aunt well enough to evoke what they like to wear, like to do, and even how they would both try to gloss over morning sickness. And in this scene she can see the beginnings of her complex relationship with her cousin.

This audacious opening to Beard’s essay declares, without having to say a word about it, that imagining is indeed part of our nonfictional lives. We imagine and fantasize all the time, every day, and why shouldn’t this is a part of the nonfiction we write? The miradouro of Beard’s two opening paragraphs widens the view of the genre, declaring that the fictions we create of our inner lives, and of our pasts, is nonfiction territory worth traveling.

The Galley Slave, a picaresque novel by the Slovenian writer Drago Jankar, offers another miradouro. It tells the story of the wanderings of Johan Ot through a Slovenian landscape set in the late middle-ages. Early in the novel, Ot arrives in a middle-sized town and settles down, though everyone suspects he must be on the lam from something. Every small peculiarity of his is noted with suspicion, and he eventually finds himself before a tribunal of the inquisition, facing outlandish charges that at first amuse him, until various methods of persuasion encourage him to change his tune. Having fully confessed, he’s condemned to death by burning at the stake, and as he is driven in a cart through the streets on his way to the awaiting pyramid of sticks and branches, a crowd gathers.

“A throng of respectable folk who were simply unable and, more to the point, unwilling to tame their rage and hatred was crowding around the cart. And why not? Why shouldn’t they spit and flail at this man who had, after all, been proven guilty? Silently and with downcast eyes he endured the people’s righteous anger. He was guilty of everything they had proven, and probably quite a bit more. Directly or indirectly, he had inflicted some evil on each of those good, hard-working people. He had caused the death of this one’s livestock and that one’s child. Another was sick because of him, and yet another was tormented by vile monsters in his sleep. He had afflicted this one’s eye, and that one’s bowels. Look at this old man, shaking and limping and spitting through what few rotten teeth he has left as he rushes toward the cart with the monster on it. Wasn’t he the one whose sexual powers Ot had blighted, causing him to sob into his pillow night after night? And look at that deformed girl sticking her head through the gap at one corner and snarling as she tried to bite him. Isn’t she the one whose hands he crippled, hadn’t he confused and twisted the thoughts in her head? And look at the fat fruit vendor, with spittle and foam on her mouth and a cane in her hand. Who was it defiled her daughter in the dark of night? Him.

“He had done these and other horrible things. He has caused people to wake up at night feeling a great weight on their chest and sweat on their foreheads and palms. He had clambered over their roofs, slammed their shutters in the dead of night, tiptoed around their beds, afflicted their bowls, rotted their teeth, taken away their appetites, caused them to rave with fever, and implanted boil-like formations in their bodies.

“Him and others like him.”

For me, this is perhaps the best passage of any kind, fiction or nonfiction, that I have read about the belief in witchcraft. I remember when I was young and would watch a movie set in the middle-ages, and when the inevitable scene of a blood-thirsty mob arrived I’d think, “Whew, I’m glad I didn’t have to live back then!” Yet the psychological dynamic known as witchcraft we now call by other names (office politics, for example), and this section of Jancar’s novel has cast part of my own life experience in a clearer light, dramatizing how we project our miseries onto others, and blame them, even though that blame doesn’t heal our misery.

Travel can be both an exhausting and exhilarating experience, one that can push us past borders of comfort we perhaps had never before recognized. The unsettling immediacy of travel heightens our awareness and encourages unexpected insight, and when one is able to lean into the strange pull of another country or culture, one’s inner landscape is correspondingly altered. The earliest moments of being somewhere else also begins the process of that distant place becoming incrementally familiar, ever more closer, so that what seems external travels to you, sets up shop in your internal life.

Our culture lies to us (it’s an unintentional lie) with its quiet insistence on the ultimate primacy of the physical world. “How was your trip?” a friend might ask, the question posed in the past tense because that is the way the assumptions of our language are structured: since you have returned, you are no longer there, any GPS system can prove that easily enough. But any trip’s fundamental revelations settle into your present moments, and that foreign country may indeed still be over there, but now it’s inside you, too.

Writing that travels can offer a similar experience. A phrase, a sentence, a brief evocative section or even an entire work can unsettle us and take residence within. This, I think, is the essential reading experience of writing that travels: we willingly place ourselves in unfamiliar territory, and brave its possible change.

*

This post has been adapted from a lecture I delivered on June 29, 2012 at the Vermont College of Fine Arts residency abroad in Skofja Loka, Slovenia.

For anyone interested in details of this residency, you can find a brief narrative (with photos) here.

*

Portrait of Pessoa by Manuela Nogueira.

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July 26th, 2012 by admin