Building Fluency in Adolescent Writers

Building Fluency in Adolescent Writers

Rain, Steam, and Speed – Building Fluency in Adolescent Writers
Moving Journals Beyond the Banal

Twenty years ago I was sent to a tough inner-city school in San Francisco. It served kids from three of the most difficult housing projects in the city, one of which, a high-rise, has since been torn down because of its dangerous conditions.

I was new to teaching English; my preceding decade had been spent in the lovely labor of working with very young children in early childhood education. These new kids—middle-schoolers, some taller than I, many heavier than I—astonished me. They swaggered. They swore. They were quick to anger, both at other students and at teachers. They were tough-skinned (they needed to be), but slowly, over the course of months, revealed an inner tenderness and vulnerability that moved me deeply. They were kids, after all, and subject to the same emotional storms kids weather. Only their storms had more torment to them, and often had to do with matters of life and death.

AN ADMISSION: EARLY ERRORS

A writer, I wanted my students to write—to jump-start a process that could sharpen their articulation. Writing was easy for me, and I wanted them to discover it to be easy. But with a few exceptions, their skills were low. They’d write a sentence where a paragraph was called for, a paragraph instead of a well-developed essay.

Did they have anything to write about? They sure did: day-to-day experiences so deep that I was in awe, experiences that—embarrassed as I am to admit it now—the writer in me envied. Such material!

I’d read a little about kids’ having success in writing journals. So why not try journals? A good idea, certain to succeed.

The kids were given folders. Write “My Journal” on these, I told them, and your name. We were off on our writing adventure, I thought. Now, for the next five min- utes of the period, write in your journal. You can write anything you want.

What a liberal feeling: empowering students to write their thoughts and feel- ings. Surely this largesse would engender more fluent writing; surely this would lead to the Elysian fields of write-at-a-moment’s-notice fluency. And imagine! A ready-made activity to get kids to settle down during the first five minutes of class!

But instead of focused—or even discursive—mini-essays on the deep love and violence and complexity each student was experiencing every day, here’s what I got on Monday:

I woke up at 7:00 today. Right on time. I ate breakfast. The bus was on time. I was on time for school, but I went to the donut shop so I was late. My teacher yelled.

Then, on Tuesday,

I woke up at 7:10 today. My alarm didn’t go off. I didn’t have time to eat break- fast. But the bus was on time. I was on time for school. No donut shop today. My teacher didn’t yell.

And so on, from student after student, day after day.

Were they writing? Yes, they were writing. And yes, too, the class was quiet for five minutes, the students compliant. But I was disappointed: why wasn’t I get- ting the depth that I sought? Why were their entries so short? Aha: that was it. Too little time!

The next day I announced, OK, you guys. These journals are really short. I’m going to raise the time to ten minutes so that you can get more writing done. So starting today. . . .

You’ve probably predicted what I got:
Monday:
I woke up at 7:00 today. I was really, really, really sleepy. I took a shower. I ate

breakfast. It was frosted flakes. The bus was late, so I was late for school. Half an hour late. My teacher got mad. It was my fourth time to be late for her class. She got really mad this time.

Was it more writing? Sure. Meaningful? Not what I was hoping for: a mere sequential recall of the morning’s events. The journals weren’t working.

Teachers reading this book have probably had a good laugh already. These were a rookie’s mistakes: too little setup (“anticipatory set,” as it’s sometimes called), instructions far too vague, time far too short, and an overall sense of nonchalance on the teacher’s part that invited reciprocal nonchalance in students. Overarching goals? Absent. Assessment? None. Student responsibility? None. Doomed: the journals were a dismal failure.

The year proceeded, English-teacher-overwhelm occurred by November, and by January I’d abandoned the journals. Journals just don’t work for me, I decided, and focused instead on essay practice.

Yet, not surprisingly, my essay practice failed, too. Though I was proudly liberal- minded in allowing students to make copious spelling errors in early drafts and twist their syntax like grammatical contortionists, their essays remained thin in both volume and content: emaciated reflections of who they were as human beings.

A new year started. I took workshops. One workshop turned me on to response journals, sometimes called “dialectical journals,” in which kids write, on the left side of a vertically folded paper, a textual quote, and record their responses on the right. There was success with that, and, perhaps desperate for any elicited writing, I used dialectical journals madly, daily, and “ran them into the ground” with the kids. They couldn’t stand them after four months.

More workshops, then: about “exchange-response journals,” wherein students write, exchange papers with another, write responses, and repeat the process.

Those worked well, but I had a difficult time using exchange journals consistently while controlling what I perceived to be gossip entries. I wanted to give kids freedom, a sense of ownership over their own writing, yet I didn’t want my English class to degenerate into a roomful of kids writing teacher-approved notes in class, all under the aegis of “freewriting,” rationalized by the idea that kids will achieve fluency and ultimate writing depth if they scribble notes to each other on subjects of their own choosing—often, alas, about crushes on boys, on girls, or about par- ties. So the peer journals went their way, too, and another year passed.

Another year, another workshop. This time, the presenter, a teacher, casually mentioned that he’d had some recent success in journal entries in which kids needed to write a certain amount in a certain time. The idea intrigued me, but seemed anti-intellectual. It implied that quantity and not quality was important. It seemed to ignore kids who were thoughtful, introspective, or slow thinkers and writers. It was artificial. (And what about subject matter? Could a student be expected to do a genuine “freewrite” given a time and length limit? Wouldn’t such an idea kill any modicum of creativity? And how would you grade the darned things?)

Surprisingly, though, when I tried timed freewrites I noticed that about half of my students responded: they rose to the occasion and wrote more volubly than ever before. Some, I was shocked to discover, even ventured past the invisible fence of mere recapitulation of daily routines and out into realm of ideas. Oh boy, oh boy, I thought; their journals reflected less a diary gestalt and more an overall sense of “journalness”—a focused, sometimes discursive, lively reflection on a subject I’d suggest.

I was onto something; I knew it. I read: Donald Graves, Lucy Calkins, others. Though the years were passing, I now felt closer to the locus of what I believed was truly elicited, “student-owned” writing.

I made some decisions. I stayed with the timed journal (a good thing), institutionalized it as a twice-weekly activity (another good thing), and succeeded in communicating to kids that the endeavor was important.

But I continued making mistakes, too. The prompts I wrote on the board were sometimes ambiguous and always too short, giving kids little to work with. I expected lots of writing per session, yet was vague on exactly how much was satisfactory. I gave kids too little time to work, and a sense of frustration and hostility gradually arose around the journals. When I increased the time allotted, I began having class management problems in keeping kids quiet. I tried playing music on my cheap stereo boom box, and though it seemed to help, the music sent through those tinny speakers was banal tripe from a limited repertoire.

However, beyond a doubt, I was getting better writing in these journals than ever before—in essay work kids were writing more fluently than previous classes. Nonetheless, the process needed refining. It lacked clarity, and the kids—quite cooperative, really—let me know explicitly and implicitly.

The summer’s break gave me time to think. I felt that the skeletal structure of the journal program was strong, but it needed some muscle on its bones. When I went back that next September, things broke loose in these journals, and they’ve been a wild, wonderful ride ever since—the highest, most joyous experience of my teaching every year.

WHAT CHANGED?

A few things changed, and their alteration made all the difference. The prompts I wrote on the board were longer, more energetic, their subject matter unafraid; they were multilayered in what they asked of kids. While sticking with the twice-weekly schedule, I increased the time to twenty minutes to give kids room to do what I asked: write long, thoughtful, focused entries.

Usually there are a bunch of questions up on the board. I usually answer each question in a paragraph so everything would be in place. I think the questions really help because it gets us really thinking.

—Anderson Ren

I gave the kids prerogative: choose the topic on the board or write on a topic of their own, as long as theirs was on a subject and not a mere laundry list of what they did yesterday or last Tuesday.

I usually write on something else; I don’t like to write on the topic. I write fast because
I write on things I like, and when it is interesting I can write very fast.

—Betty Yee

It might be second nature to many teachers, but local teacher research has demonstrated the motivational value of giving students choice in learning. Stu- dent buy-in to content as well as process grows dramatically when they have an opportunity to make selections about what they will study. (See “Tim’s Advice” in Appendix D to read about the power of choice.)

I established clear guidelines for grading, and while retaining my relaxed stance on spelling and syntax (journals are first-draft work, after all), insisted on a modicum of neatness. Finally, I bought a decent but inexpensive stereo and began collecting and playing instrumental music of many genres—each among the best of its kind.

One thing that really helps is the music. It’s not too loud because it doesn’t distract me from doing my journal. Actually, it helps me even write more. It makes me feel calm. None of the music has words. If it did, I think it would be distracting.

—Anderson Ren

I’ve stayed with it, refined it, queried the kids at midyear and year-end toward improving the process, implemented many of their suggestions, and established in my classroom a program that still stuns me. (As I write this, the picture of my student Teakeysha is still fresh: Teakeysha, who yesterday got my attention during Journal Time, silently holding up her paper, on which in a dozen minutes she’d easily filled an entire side. I see the proud look on her face: Teakeysha—the one who complained mightily when I explained our journal protocol three weeks ago. . . .)

What comes next, then, dear colleague, is a step-by-step rendering of that pro- gram, carved with the blade of kids’ imperatives: imperatives both voiced by them and communicated behaviorally. This program works if one of your aims is to achieve fluency in student writing, depth in the subject matter, and “drop of a dime” ability in students to write in a way that is either focused or discursive, depending upon the moment’s demand.

This journal process has grown as I have grown. In it I have found not only convincing evidence of writing growth in individual students but also a real plumb- ing of the depths in their writing. And, not least, I’ve found the bonus of a contagious and communal joy.

So what I’ll lay out here is the protocol for what I’ve come to call Fluency Journals: words on assessing the journals, what works and why it works (some- times what doesn’t and why it doesn’t), other issues germane to the practice, and enough “prompts” from which to choose for more than an entire school year.

FLUENCY JOURNALS AS PRACTICE

I use the word practice less in the sense of repetition—connoting, at its most negative, a child forced to practice piano—and more in the Buddhist sense: a kind of meditation to which one (the teacher, the student) is committed, and to which one attends, is present for, regularly. It is a quiet study: a study for the teacher in getting to know the students deeply, and a study for students in self-discovery.

I like Journal Time because it’s peaceful.

—Amy Yan

When Mr. Fleming puts his music on, it’s like relax- ing your mind and it puts you to think more.

—Eva Velasquez

Before long, community is created: community not of master and acolytes but of guide and guided: a guide whose role it is to establish and maintain safety, to suggest—even if such suggestions sometimes go ignored by the guided, who, quickly familiar with the lay of the land, feel confident to move on.

That’s what we’re all about, isn’t it? INSPIRATION FOR THE NAME

The name of the program, Rain, Steam, and Speed, is based on a mid-nineteenth- century English painting by J.M.W. Turner. The scene is of a steam train rushing forward through driving rain, framed on one side by people boating, and on the other, by folks plowing a field. The picture is associated with the railway frenzy that swept across England at this time. To us it suggests the power of determination and focus in developing thoughtful literacy.

In the classroom, the “Rain” tying the scene together is the music strand that sup- ports the students’ deep focus and steady writing; the “Steam”—the driving force— is the set of prompts that provide writing departure points to tap students’ interests and open them to the larger world, and the “Speed” is the momentum built by the structured routine for writing that students follow twice a week. When the rhythm of these three components gets established, we think you will find that your students’ writing will become more thoughtful, more correct, and more substantial. In addition, students will develop more confidence as writers and thinkers.

Moving Journals Beyond the Banal 11

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I would say journal writing has greatly improved my writing because I feel less shy about expressing my ideas and thoughts. . . . Before, I hated express- ing my ideas in fear that people would make a pub- lic mockery of me or my ideas.

—Elena Escalante

Through validation, feedback, systematic practice, and examples, students will be able to transfer what they’ve learned to expository writing assignments and projects in other subjects. Finally, the fluency development program presented here provides significant student support for the demands of the many writing tests re- quired of students.

This time produces a mind quick to react to any topic given spontaneously, and that would be more than useful in the torturous SAT-9 (standardized test).

—Charles Kwan

As you observe improved fluency in your students, we hope that Rain, Steam, and Speed will alter the way you (teachers!) think about journal writing. Unlike so many journal programs that are largely busywork, lack focus, and present enor- mous reading demands for teachers without a clearly defined purpose, Rain, Steam, and Speed contains a system of accountability that directs improvement and sim- plifies evaluation. Come explore the simple power of Rain, Steam, and Speed.

I am able to write almost two times as much as I started with. I used to hate writing, but it is different now.


First published in Rain, Steam, and Speed – Building Fluency in Adolescent Writers, Jossey-Bas, 2004.


Gerald Fleming is the author of One (Hanging Loose Press, 2016), The Choreographer (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2013), Night of Pure Breathing (Hanging Loose Press, 2011), and Swimmer Climbing onto Shore (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2005). He lives in California.

Marlene or Number 16

Marlene or Number 16

If wind asked permission
we might wait and listen
as if night stopped its blue
curtain and wheat bent without scattering

its hope of what happens in the dark,

and happens by accident.
–JOHN FREEMAN
"On Love"

Photographs by Victorine Gay

 

MARLENE, she looks older than the men, the daylight, how it accuses contours.

 

MARLENE got a new lavender coat, it hangs down to her calves, long over the jean-skirt held lop-sided at her waist like a hula-hoop with a studded belt. She’s had a double espresso from the barman who says, Don’t you want to take off your coat, Marlene? No, thanks, Marlene replies, I like it on. How do I look?

 

MARLENE is turning in circles, the clean hem floating up and tickling the skin behind her knees.

 

MARLENE took a couple of aspirin during her shift yesterday afternoon cause there was nothing else, then cut her index finger trying to get a slice out of the tight lime, and the gash wouldn’t clot because, as the man-from-the-back told her, aspirin thins out blood. The man-from-the-back closed the industrial dish-washer he was loading, brought over a hand-towel and wrapped it, gracefully, around the gash, cupping his own two hands at the stem and holding her toweled-finger like an orchid-head. She followed the edge of his hands, a beckoning, a teacup, then up at him, and he at her, and then he looked away and said I’ll find you some band-aids Marlene, but began to feel mannered against the baggy intimacy between them. His head turned away, eyes lingering on the postcards taped one next to another in a series on the wall above the stairway leading to the basement where the toilets are.

MARLENE tourne en cercles, impeccable, son ourlet flotte et caresse la peau de l'arrière de ses genoux.

MARLENE s'est enfilé deux cachets d'aspirine pendant sa pause hier après-midi. C'était tout ce qu'il restait. Puis, elle s'est entaillé l'index en essayant de couper la rondelle d'un citron vert trop ferme. Le saignement ne cessait pas. C'est l'homme-de-l'arrière-cuisine qui lui avait rappelé justement que l'aspirine fluidifie le sang. Il a refermé le lave-vaisselle industriel qu'il venait de charger, s'est saisi d'un essuie-main et a enveloppé généreusement la plaie, joignant ses deux mains à la tige, il tenait son doigt enturbanné comme une tête d'orchidée. Elle a effleuré du regard le bord de ses mains, un tremblement, une tasse de thé, puis d'elle à lui et de lui à elle, il a détourné les yeux en murmurant « Je vais vous trouver du sparadrap Marlene ». Gênés l'un comme l'autre de l'intimité qui s'était enroulée autour d'eux.

Excerpt from “Marlene or Number 16” translated into French by Victorine Gay

MARLENE’s been pointing the finger. She’s been blaming her younger brother. Didn’t I change your pooped-underwear when you were a little chubby Messiah, though? He hung up. Marlene whispered into her iphone, lipstick smearing on the plastic, and you are supposed to be my blood… The men are speaking Albanian over the TV in the corner of the café. This café where Marlene works, and the barman, and the man-from-the-back, who’s in the toilet just now. It’s early afternoon, the man-from-the-back rarely goes, but when he does, he urinates for a long time. The barman’s thrown out a couple jokes already and now he’s just coughing like a dandelion between sips. He reaches for the remote control beneath the counter and turns the sound up on the TV as the garbage truck thuds on the street, right in front of the couple of tables on the terrace of the café, one empty, and one with two young women, just arrived. A black man gets off the garbage truck, hazard-green trousers, neon yellow plastic vest with silver reflective strips, he rolls the green bins from the curb to the gaping metal trunk, hooks them up to the lever, which lifts, dumps, and sets them down. He rolls the bins back to the curb, where he stops to look at stream of sun falling out from the parting clouds, white hairs curling in the dark crown on his head. There’s a white man in a white truck behind him, honking. At the bar, the milk is frothing. The white man’s pounding his black-leather steering wheel, screaming, Allez!, Come on! A young mulatto with orange hair and freckles across his honeyed complexion pedals past them both on his bike, singing Francoise Hardy to himself in a high-pitched voice, Tous les garçons et les filles de mon âge… “All of the boys and the girls who’re my age stroll on by, hand-in-hand, two by two…O but me, I walk the streets alone…” Well, this street’s global, but concretely it’s in the North of Paris. The fruit and vegetable seller’s an Arab. The tobacco shop, where you get your cigarettes and lotto tickets, is run by a Chinese man. And across from him is Bombay Nights, previously Tandoori Nights, previously Rajpoot, previously Kasimir House. And this bar, named after the street, Le Saint Denis, is an Albanian hang-out, so no one can say why they serve that cheap green Portugeuse wine, but they do, fizzy vino verde 2,50€ a glass, Marlene’ll bring it over.

 

MARLENE’s not Albanian. She’s not a child of the eagles, Shqipëri as the Albanians call their own country, meaning Land of the Eagles. That’s why there’s the two-headed eagle silhouette on the solid red flag taped to the side of the cash register. Marlene did have a child, though. Well he was her partner’s boy, and hers, when they were together. He was panic-stricken by pigeons. They couldn’t get past the arc of Saint Denis without him peeing himself in his modest terror. The man-from-the-back comes up from the basement toilet, past the rows of taped postcards. Napoli, Marseille, Barcelona, Athens, Palermo, Rotterdam, Bruxelles, then a dense red tulip field with a Dutch woman bent over to pick one, pantiless in a mini-skirt, her sun-kissed ass-cheeks next to the cursive writing, Beautiful View From Here. The man-from-the-back goes around the staircase to the corner, where the extra orange-brown leather stools stand, on top of one, the metal fan, turned off, it’s three blades still within the wired caging, looking out as if cherishing a long-passed insult. He turns the fan on, and goes back to the back.

 

MARLENE’s leaning on the bar, her hip curved out, pointing across the street to the grass-green Carrefour supermarket with the homeless man slumped outside against the low-grates and the front window, shirtless, belly out, chin down, hands which have lost their sense of humor upturned at his thighs. He’s warming at the surface of consciousness, stinking of daydreams. Next door’s a small four walls with wooden booths, a phone each, 15-cents-a-minute to call Senegal, for example, Taxiphone spelled out in flashing blue and white lights. A thin man in a faded black sweater and wrinkled gray khakis walks past, holding a half eaten cob of corn, white napkin crumbled over the stem in his hand. Another man, rounder, blue short-sleeve button down, bow-legged in his stiff jeans, gray hairs on his arm, his hand missioned with carrying nothing but an standard #10 envelope. Deux, Marlene says to the barman and he gets out two wine glasses and places them on the counter in front of her. The two young women on the terrace both turn their head towards Marlene. One’s got a tall neck with a mess of her brown Norwegian hair knotted into itself, and the other, hygienic-faced, shining blonde hair behind her ears, silver hoops in her plump lobes. They are both studying at the theatre school down the street, blue door. They’re waiting for their glasses of the cheap vino verde.

 

MARLENE, this past weekend, was dawdling through Montmartre for no reason. She stopped in front of the man with a thinning pony-tail, a wooden-easel between them, he looked up, she said, draw me. The man drew a caricature of Marlene, her eyes puffed and sliding open, her mouth a squeaking pickle about to snap in two, her cheeks like flattened candy wrappers. She handed him the fee in euro coins, counting it out.

 

MARLENE’s sauntering through the bar towards the terrace with two glasses of vino verde, trying to get her lavender coat to catch a breeze and ribbon around her legs. A couple of the men wave their hand and say, Come on, Marlene, you’re blocking the TV… The man-from-the-back reties his white apron twice around his waist. His worn purple cotton T-shirt hangs at the sleeves and sticks to his shoulders, the sweat in the form of angel wings. Sorry, Marlene says and moves out of the way, but what do you think? Think of what, the man with brown leather loafers says and picks up his pint of beer. Think of my new coat, Marlene’s smiling shyly. Oh, yeah, the man says. That’s right. It looks nice, Marlene. Good color for you.

 

MARLENE’s still blushing when she returns from the terrace and the two women are sipping their wine behind her and she joins the men and watches the TV screen. An enormous stage is lit up with crossed beams. The camera zooms in like an eagle swooping, then abruptly cuts back to a panel of judges. A woman in a corseted canary-yellow dress, petite, reddish-orange lips, say Hello, she waves. The next judge, tight white button-up, glasses like an architect, a clef-chin and a shiny forehead someone forgot to powder, say Hello, Hello there Albania! The first act is a young man in loose white soccer shorts and a red and yellow team shirt. He spins two soccer balls on his index fingers, then takes one spinning ball to his chest, bounces it to his foot, then his heel, then up to his knee, clocking his hips to the traditional Albanian song playing in the background. The third judge is a short man with a clean buzz to his dark hair. He’s disappointed. Then the words burst through the screen: Albania’s Got Talent! and cuts to the commercial break. The man with loafers puts down his pint glass, smoothes out his thick steel-wool mustache, then goes outside to smoke. The others pick up their conversation.

 

MARLENE’s watching the commercials as if they were a continuation of the talent show. Her mouth’s loose and her eyes glaze and her fingers curl in, even the one she cut yesterday, with two band-aids taped around it. Are you okay Marlene, the barman asks. Marlene looks over to him. Am I okay? Marlene repeats it. She thinks about it. I’m just, Marlene takes a couple breaths, I’m just…

 

MARLENE! The man-from-the-back yells. Your phone’s ringing! You left it on top next to the cash register. You’re lucky no one stole it. Oh I don’t think anyone’d steal it… It’s an iphone, Marlene! I mean I trust everyone here. But there are guys that come in and out. I mean I trust people. You shouldn’t! But I want to. If you wanted to trust people, Marlene, you should’ve gotten a shitty Nokia. I’m just looking out for you. That’s nice of you, thank you. The phone’s still ringing in Marlene’s hand. Answer it, Marlene.

 

MARLENE, hello. It’s Marlene’s ex. Her voice is low. She doesn’t want her son to hear. He’s nine and he’s sad and she doesn’t want any more messes. When are you coming over, Marlene’s-ex asks her, to pick up the last of your stuff? Marlene’s-ex lives two streets down from the bar, between the Japanese massage place, windows covered with posters of bare-backs and orchids, and the corner-store épicerie, she’s on the third floor, where you can yell from the street, phrases like WHAT’S YOUR DOORCODE AGAIN? and I JUST NEED TO SEE YOU.

 

MARLENE, I’m putting it in a box and I’m taking it to the bar and I’m dropping it off. Alright, Marlene agrees, because she wants her ex to see her in her new lavender coat and maybe she’ll bring the boy even, though he’s not her biological son, after five years, he called her Mama-Marlene. Then she hangs up and realizes her ex is on her way, carrying a cardboard box of her stuff, the last one, the final trinkets of ways she couldn’t explain herself and that plant, the small cactus she never watered and yet, it lived on, without a grudge. On the TV screen the next contestant is up. A boy in suspenders and a black bow-tie. He’s missing his two front teeth. He’s singing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelejah, voice splintering from him, eyes pinching and cheeks flushed as he’s reaching for the high notes. Next is a boy in a Muslim cap with dark skin and blue eyes, blowing the trumpet like Miles Davis while serving baklava.

 

MARLENE’s ex shows up with a cardboard box in her hands, she’s got blue jeans and a silky shirt tucked in, her flour-blond hair parted in the middle, strands of gray hidden, her lipstick applied, a violent rose.

 

MARLENE, her ex says, here take this. She hands her the box. Marlene takes the box and says thank you then puts it down on the curb next to the now-empty green garbage bins. You don’t want any of it? Marlene’s-ex asks her. I don’t think so, Marlene replies. She’s wondering if her ex has noticed her new lavender coat.

 

MARLENE waits. She waits. She turns a little left and bends her knees as if she’s about to curtsey. Marlene’s-ex is staring at her, pulling her eyebrows together. If you didn’t want any of it…, but Marlene’s-ex stops herself because she doesn’t want to get into it.

 

MARLENE is now doubting whether her ex will notice the coat at all and suddenly, the boy’s back in her thoughts. She really wants to see the boy. She misses that little boy. That little peanut-nose, that little wobbly-eyed boy, those high eyebrows and vigilant stare, Marlene misses that little boy more than anything, she could almost take off her new lavender coat and throw it into the green bin. Well, goodbye, Marlene’s-ex says, they kiss on the cheek, and she is walking away. The two young women left change on the table, and the empty wine glasses side-by-side.

 

MARLENE swallows because her mouth is getting dry. She’s done with her shift but she decides to stick around at the bar until it’s completely dark. The sun sets. The bobby-pin’s hanging down on a couple of strands from her head, she’s stroking her dark hair messily with her band-aided finger, mostly missing the hair and bumping the plaster into her chin.

 

MARLENE steps outside to make a call on her iphone, it’s ringing and ringing, then the call’s picked up. Marlene says, It’s me again, to her ex. Her ex breaths out, Marlene, please, she says in a quiet voice because the boy’s asleep now, You can’t do this. Marlene is just listening, wondering if the boy heard the phone ring and woke up and is listening just like her, his small body crouched against his bedroom door. We said we were going to respect each other, Marlene. Marlene’s-ex is taking her time now because she’s getting angry. You’re only 38, but I swear, Marlene, at that bar, you look – about 50, and I know, that’s an awful thing to say, to someone you love, but now, we have to love other people.

 

MARLENE likes poetry, and it’s almost 2am, and they’re closing up, so the man with the steel-wool mustache stands up and recites a stanza he remembers from Lasgush Poradeci: WHY I NEED TO LOVE YOU.

Because I chose to love you.

And I chose to woo you.

And I chose to kiss you.

That's why.” Then the bar-owner shushes him and says to Marlene, you should read Ismail Kadare, Marlene, he’s our guy. He even stops wiping the counter and clears his throat, and announces, Poetry is the title of this poem. He moves the rag to the side and begins to deliver the lines carefully, translating them from Albanian in his head for Marlene: “Poetry,

How did you find your way to me?

My mother does not know Albanian well,

She writes letters like Aragon, without commas and periods,

My father roamed the seas in his youth,

But you have come,

Walking down the pavement of my quiet city of stone,

And knocked timidly at the door of my three-storey house,

At Number 16.” Not bad, the man with the steel-wool mustache says. Marlene smiles but can’t look up at the barman. She says Thank you to the floor.

 

MARLENE’s walking down rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis alone, with her iphone in her hand, because the barman locked up the café and they all said goodbye. It’s cool now, the wind is blowing up her jean-skirt, and ruffling her new lavender coat. The homeless man at Carrefour is awake, he says, Psst, to Marlene but she’s got her eyes semi-closed, walking towards the arc of Saint Denis, smiling to herself. The homeless man forgets Marlene and starts picking at his bellybutton. She’s already down the street, alone and humming, to herself and to her new coat, the lavender fabric dancing in the gusts of wind, her left-hand bobbing to the melody she’s humming, and her right, cradling the iphone between her band-aided finger and palm. He’s behind her, the shadow, speeding up, his shoulders in, narrow hips, quick steps. He lunges at Marlene.

1s.jpg

 

MARLENE’s face-down on the cobblestone circle beneath the arc of Saint Denis. There’s pigeon-shit and cigarette ash smeared on her coat, torn-hem. The shadow’s sprinting far into the darkness, one hand moving the wind, the other clutching her iphone, which is, suddenly, ringing in his grip.

 

MARLENE, do you, want to, come over. I’d like to see you. He’d liked to see you too. He can’t sleep. He wants you to sing him something. After, we could, lie down, together. I miss your body. I don’t think I can, just stop, loving, you. Also, I’m ready to talk about my responsibility in what happened. And your brother called me. He says he doesn’t know how to say he’s sorry, that’s why, but he’d like to give it a try. I was thinking you could go back to school. I could take care of us for a bit. You looked so beautiful this afternoon in your new lavender coat, please. Come home.

 

MARLENE, near the curb where it smells like stone and urine, is pushing herself over, onto her back. She opens her eyes and begins counting the stars, fourteen, fifteen…

Yelena Moskovich was born in 1984 in Ukraine (former USSR) and emigrated to the US with her family in 1991. After graduating with a degree in playwriting from Emerson College, Boston, she moved to Paris to study at the Lecoq School of Physical Theatre, and later for a Masters degree in Art, Philosophy and Aesthetics from Universite Paris 8. Her plays have been produced in the US, Vancouver, Paris, and Stockholm. She lives in Paris. The Natashas is her first novel.

 

Tell us a little about yourself. How long have you been writing? Any publications? 
I learned to swim before I could walk, but writing, always. I was stringing together verse before I could write, telling my mother to write it down for me (in Ukraine). I moved to America when I was 7 (Wisconsin), and because we were Jewish refugees, our sponsorship included my attendance to an Orthodox Jewish school where I had to learn Hebrew and English, alongside my Russian. Since each language has its own distinct alphabet, from different etymological families, text became as much a spatial and material playground as means for meaning. I loved the look of certain letters, each with its unique attitude and stance (and in Hebrew especially, each letter has its own spiritual charge).

Later on, I found a home for my writing in theater, as a playwright and director. I loved the way one could jump in time, transform into and out of different landscapes, and energize banality with tone and character.

After years trying things out on the stage, I had an urge for a literary homecoming, to apply all these elements within the relationship between reader and text.

Publications:
The Natashas (Serpent’s Tail, 2016), debut novel.
Les Natasha (éditions Viviane Hamy, 2017)

Could you tell us a bit more about "Marlene or Number 16" and the inspiration behind it?
There’s a café I used to go to regularly in the North of Paris, on rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, called “Le Saint Denis.” It was a couple doors down from the physical theater school I did years back, Ecole Jacques Lecoq. It became a spot I liked to go to on my own to write, sit, observe. It has a gawky grace to it, like a secret grievance or wasted wish; the perfect place to suddenly want to recite poetry to remaining customers past midnight. On the terrace, in the late afternoon, theater students got cheap wine from time to time. But inside, it's mainly a bar for old men. I tried out sitting inside, with them. And there, on a few occasion, another woman came in; she became my Marlene.

Name three short story writers you especially admire – why?
Until about 4 years back, I mostly read only plays or poetry. Then I started getting into novels / fiction. I’m drawn to writing that feels alive and dangerous, no matter its shape or size. But if I were to list 3 writers I admire who provide an incredibly expansive story in a seemingly short span of time, they would be:

1) Yoko Tawada, Japanese but writes in German, is one of my favorite writers, I love her collection Where Europe Begins, especially “Storytellers without souls.”

2) Emil Cioran, Romanian philosopher, his writing is usually a succession of proverbial-like commentary or anecdotal grudges; notably Tears and Saints.

3) Jon Fosse, Norwegian playwright (though I read him only in French). His plays are almost weightless, the short phrases manage to reveal generational trauma then curl back up into silence like a worm on a leaf.

Love, Suddenly: Etgar Keret Invents Hebrew Romance

Love, Suddenly: Etgar Keret Invents Hebrew Romance

The article looks at the emergence of romance as a viable literary device in Israeli literature in the 1990s, especially in the works of young writers who used the privacy of romantic coupling as an escape from the more national thematics of previous literary generations.  Historically, modern Hebrew works paid little attention to romance, certainly in comparison to the ubiquity of romantic love in other contemporary, nineteenth century European literatures. In Hebrew literature, romance played a secondary role that was usually subordinated to communal, Jewish and later Zionist concerns. During the 1980s, however, especially after the first Intifada in 1987, this dynamic began to change. The article examines this change in the works of Etgar Keret as a representative voice of a new Israeli cultural generation. 

One of the illustrative ways Hebrew literary critics characterized and distinguished literary generations from one another during the past century has been to focus on the common use and function of the narrative voice as an expression of the age.1

Thus, the anguished and introverted voice of the lonely first-person singular narrator in many works of the Hebrew Revival came to symbolize the hesitant and precarious beginnings of a new Hebrew culture in the Land of Israel at the beginning of the twentieth century. Similarly, the first person plural of the following literary generation, the 1948 Generation, came to symbolize the next stage in the Hebrew cultural revolution and its success in establishing a cohesive national culture whose members strongly identified with it at the expense of more personal concerns. The turn to a plurality of first person narratives in the 1960s, during the State Generation, marked a break from the group culture of the first native, Israeli generation and a rebellion against it. By looking closely at works by Etgar Keret, this essay suggests the emergence of yet another narrative voice or literary grouping in Israel in the early 1990s: the “first-person dual” or the romantic voice. Although the first-person dual, "גוף ראשוניים", does not exist as a grammatical category in Hebrew, the sense of a pronominal narrative voice in many works by Keret and his contemporaries is neither that of an individual “I” or a communal “we,” but that of the romantic couple.

Characterized by terse narratives that usually unfold in urban settings, the new romantic writers abandon the grand Zionist narrative of the past in favor of stories that are both smaller and larger in scope—the preoccupation with romantic love as the ultimate fulfillment of the human condition. Unlike previous generations, many works by contemporary romantic writers like Etgar Keret, Uzi Weil, Gadi Taub, Gafi Amir and others, appear largely unconcerned with Jewish identity, Jewish nationality or Jewish history. Moreover, the move these authors make away from the particular and the local toward more universal literary themes, and especially the construction of the romantic experience within a capitalist framework, is distinctly marked by the abandonment of the tension between individual and community, that has stood at the center of modern Hebrew literature since its inception. Instead, these writers attempt to seclude themselves within the protective confines of the lovers' nest rather than in relation to a community.

The emergence of romance in Hebrew literature is noteworthy and intriguing because, historically, modern Hebrew works paid romance scant attention, certainly in comparison to its ubiquity in European literature. After all, the development of modern literature in Europe—the novel in particular—is directly linked to romantic love as an individualizing force; a mode of rebellion, liberation and fulfillment in an increasingly bourgeois, capitalist and secular world. The very name for the novel, român, in many European languages makes clear the extent to which the literary form itself centered on relations between the sexes.2

Generally speaking, this was not the case with modern Hebrew literature, which waged a different cultural war at its beginning and focused more on reforming the Jewish community and forging new connections between its members that were not based on religion.

There were, to be sure, genuine attempts to incorporate romance into modern Hebrew letters. The most obvious example would be the very first modern Hebrew novel, Avraham Mapu's 1853 Love of Zion (אהבת ציון). Other notable examples come from the Hebrew Revival at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth (Berdichevsky and Gnessing, for instance). But most of these served more ideological than romantic concerns. Mapu's novel was a maskilic critique of the moribund Jewish community of his day, while he precarious freedom that Revivalist heroes won from their traditional Jewish communities often came at the expense of their love life, which tended to be tortuous and abortive. That is, the failed love affairs of the uprooted young Jew, the Talush, were yet another indication of his existential limbo, stuck between the declining old world and an unknown Jewish future.

More contemporary successors of these early writers, with the exception, perhaps, of S. Y. Agnon, did not use romance more significantly either. Most of the works that appeared immediately before and after 1948 did not dwell on romance because they were much more concerned with the urgent matters of state-building. The next literary generation, often called New Wave or State Generation, continued to [dis]use romance. Amos Oz epitomized this in his signature novel of the period, My Michael (1968), when he endowed the love life of the heroine, Hanna, with distinct national symbolism.3

For many of these writers, romance played a secondary role that was usually subordinated to communal, Jewish and Zionist concerns.4

During the 1980s, especially after the first Intifada in 1987, this dynamic began to change. Among the influences that brought these changes about and opened up Israeli culture to greater outside influences were the deep political and economic changes after the Six Day War. Throughout the 1980s, Israel experienced accelerated development and the greater establishment of a western, capitalist society, a trend which was expedited by the emigration to Israel of hundreds of thousands of Russians in the early 1990s and symbolized by the signing of the Oslo Accord in 1993.

The addition of nearly one million workers and consumers to Israel’s economy, and the first real chance of peace with the entire Arab world, or at least a glimpse of what it might look like, jolted the country and began to change it in what seemed at the time as profound ways. It brought Israel much closer to Western consumerist society and exposed it to its popular culture, especially American television programs that saturated the air after deregulation opened up the local media market at the beginning of the 1990s. The new programming was eagerly embraced by a public thirsty not only for entertainment choices but for a confirmation that it really belonged in the West. Inevitably, these changes made Israeli society more susceptible to global trends as well, in particular the millennial atmosphere of the 1990s with its anxiety and uncertainty regarding the future, which often give rise to the kind of “nostalgic yearnings for a secure, familiar past” that reverberate in many works by Keret and his peers.5

This may be the reason for the appeal which Keret and other romantic writers had for an an increasingly fragmented society, especially in an age that was distinguished by the expansion and richness of its literary output, by women, Mizrahim, gays, religious writers, and Arabs.6

Throughout the 1990s Keret and his confrères were repeatedly mentioned in the daily press as well as in more academic venues, individually and as a group, as the voice of a new Israeli age; an age that was alternatively called postmodern or postzionist. Their resonance in the unraveling society of a “fin de siecle” Israel and the ability of what I call romantic writers to reach across a plurality of voices by constructing a fragile but distinct voice is the subject of this study.7

The romantic writers developed against this millennial background and staged what Gadi Taub has so poignantly called a “dispirited rebellion.”8

Taub, himself one of the romantic writers, published in 1997 a collection of essays in which he defined a new Israeli generation in what was essentially a post-national era. The importance of Taub's thesis resides in the window it opened into the mindset of a generation of Israelis who were born after the 1967 triumph and whose consciousness was forged in an increasingly safe, economically advantaged and militarily strong Israel.9

The romantic writers were the products of this generation and, somewhat paradoxically, derive their anxieties from their unprecedented privilege as powerful and secure Jews.10

One of the more notable consequences of this cultural shuffle has been a crucial change of priorities in the nation's cultural agenda, a kind of “privatization of collective memory and prioritization of the private, domestic sphere,” as Miri Talmon calls it.11

Indeed, a mounting tension between the private and the public spheres, an increasing pessimism about Israel's political course, a heightened frustration with the ability to change it and an acute wish to disengage from it in order to protect one's sanity and psychological integrity in the face of it marks Keret's generation.

The first Intifada did not trigger this dynamic as much as clarified and articulated it for many.12The ground for this realization was laid long before it broke out, not just by the changes in the country's material culture, but especially by so-called new historians and sociologists, whose challenges to well-accepted perceptions of Israeli history gradually entered into academic and then public discourse since the beginning of the 1980s. Studies such as Benny Morris' 1987 The Palestinian Refugee Problem, Ella Shohat's 1989 Israeli Cinema, and Tom Segev's 1984, 1949, The First Israelis, and his 1991 The Seventh Million, to name the most prominent of them, began to reexamine some of Zionism's most deep-rooted and hallowed claims about Israel’s wish for peace, about its relations with Arabs, about its immigration and social integration policies, and about its relationship to the Holocaust and its survivors. Although these challenges were not immediately accepted and were strongly resisted by the establishment, some of the well-researched and pointedly argued alternative explanations they provided slowly gained credence, especially with younger people. A sense that Israel might not have been right at all times, that it was not always the victim and that there are other, legitimate sides to the Mid-East story slowly enfeebled Zionist dogma.13

The preeminence of romantic love in the works of Keret and others was in many ways an escape from the confusion of a frustrating reality and a rebellion against it. One of the peculiar characteristics of works by young writers like Keret, who began to appear on the literary scene in the 1990s, is their urban imagery and setting: bars, gun-toting detectives, nightly taxi rides in the city and beautiful, mysterious women, which often seem taken from generic American films and television programs. In this “capitalist realism,” as Eva Illouz calls it in her illuminating study about the connection between love and modern consumerism, romantic love is perceived as inherently liberating and individualizing, a mode of rebellion, escape and fulfillment in an increasingly alienating world. It is after all a commonplace that Romantic Love replaced religion in twentieth century Western culture and has become one of the most pervasive mythologies of contemporary life in the West. But since nationality, not religion, held center stage in Zionism, the closer identification with the West and the eager adoption of its values, especially love, undermined in the Israeli case nationalism not religion.

This kind of romantic consumerism occurs most conspicuously in the rebellion of post-army Israeli youth, who take prolonged trips abroad, especially to the Far East. Such excursions serve a double purpose. On the one hand, they allow young Israelis to disengage physically and mentally from a dismal local reality that is still stuck, as it were, in a primitive and anachronistic conflict while the rest of the civilized world is out having fun. But the trips also foster closer associations with the West through the consumption of tailored tours to exotic locations, replete with extreme sports and drug parties. Today we know that these changes were not as enduring, and that in many ways, the economic boom and the chance for peace were artificial. But the promise of both, the economy and the peace, was nevertheless powerful and alluring at the time, perhaps even more so because they were not yet real. It goes directly to the nature of Keret's writing and the writings of his contemporaries, who were sometimes labeled urban, lean-language or post-modernist writers.
15

For the most part, these young men and women, most of whom were journalists as well, were quick to perceive the new trends and comment on the possibilities they held for a truly western, civil society in Israel, a middle-class Israel that would finally be able to lead the bourgeois life it always craved despite its nominal adherence to a regnant statist socialism.

This, essentially, is the sentiment that Keret as a romantic writer expresses in his works, which usurp the grand Zionist narrative of the past in favor of a more Western-universalist one. While the new narrative retains elements of the former, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Ashkenazi-Mizrahi divide and secular-religious tensions, these no longer hold the same values they held before. As part of a post-modern, post-national literary universe, they are subsumed under and serve a grander romantic narrative, to which Jewish history, culture and identity are in many ways incidental.

Etgar Keret began writing as a young soldier in the early 1990s. He sent his first stories to so-called lowbrow, popular media, such as the teenage weekly Ma'ariv lano'ar and the glossy women's magazines At and La'isha because, as he confessed tellingly, he preferred to be read by many than evaluated by few.16

Whether Keret meant this in earnest or not, popular and critical acclaim swiftly followed the publication of his first anthology of short stories, Pipelines, in 1992.17

Throughout the 1990s the daily press was full of passionate critiques of Keret's stories which seem to have hit a public nerve. Common to most of these critiques is Keret's ability to succinctly express some of the seemingly irreconcilable tensions of the new era, that is, the unbearable lightness of Israeli being in a post national age. So many of Keret's stories revolve around misfits, wrote one critic, that the Other becomes the most well-defined group of the 1990s; a passive and haphazard collection of individuals that replaces the actively unified "we" of previous, more nationally-minded generations.18

Numerous critics recognized Keret's existential angst and noted his particular writing style, his ability to translate the visual sensibility of a video clip into words as a critical component of his popularity: the accessible, spoken idiom, the frenetic tempo, the accumulation of disparate cultural elements, the visual and verbal quotes, and the extreme brevity of the text. Keret's cinematic writing style has been noted especially after the publication of his second anthology of short stories, Missing Kissinger, two years later in 1994. One critic who reviewed the new volume described Keret not only as a typical product of the mass media generation, but went even further to suggest that his allusions to popular TV series, comic books and detective films is reminiscent of the way older Hebrew writers used biblical allusions.19

That the writing style of young Keret appealed to his peers, to the first generation of Israelis who grew up with a substantial presence of commercial media needs little explanation. His popularity in more judicious quarters is less obvious. One reason that may explain this concordance is the fairly quick way in which Keret came to be regarded as a postmodernist, a category that was bandied freely in Israel in the early 1990s. Like any new critical method of inquiry, postmodernism drew a lot of attention as a novel method of cultural analysis when it began to make inroads into the Israeli academy in the late 1980s and early 1990s.20

Iconoclastic studies questioning the various truths of the Zionist story that began to emerge in the 1980s were boosted by the academic respectability of postmodernity, which doubts the legitimacy of any system of values, encompassing theories and grand narratives. Despite its instability as a systematic method of inquiry, postmodernism became a potent source of fuel for the changes that swept Israel at that time.21

Because Keret's stories were written so "visually" and because many of them presented a confusing, mean and hellish Israel they were described fairly early on as quintessentially postmodern.22

Even when critics did not literally define them as such, they pointed out many postmodern elements in Keret's works, like the influence of the mass media,23generic blurring,24the confusion of style and substance,25 obscuring the boundaries between representation and reality,26 and an ostensible disconnection between writer and narrator.27

The influence of the mass media, especially films and television, was one of the most frequently mentioned postmodern features of Keret's writing. The lack of generic coordinates and the jumbled accumulation of disparate cultural artifacts were often perceived as the absence of a moral compass as well; a moral relativism that is revealed in the alleged absence of an implied narrator, that ephemeral moral voice usually invoked by the tension between the actual writer and the narrator he or she creates.

Many of these signs can be detected even before reading Keret's actual stories by looking at the jackets of his anthologies. The 1992 Pipelines, for instance, features a detail from Edvard Munch’s famous etching “the Scream,” which, significantly, is rendered in pink.28

The choice of Munch’s work highlights the haunting nature of many stories in the anthology, which remains Keret’s most obviously political or socially-aware work to date. The stories in Pipelines deal with the legacy of the Holocaust, Jewish-Arab relations, army service, the Intifada and the dissolution of civil society in Israel because of it. At the same time, the very use of “the Scream,” which the cover serves up as a cliché of a cliché, in its choice of detail and the lurid pink instead of the dramatic darkness of the original painting, undermines the haunting dimension of the stories by manipulating the meaning of the etching through a manipulation of its surface, appearance or “performance,” to use postmodern parlance. The painful substance of the disturbing etching is not changed or removed but trifled with by cheerfully coloring it. The conversion of the original scream into a pop-culture artifact atenuates the tension between the overwhelmingly articulate image and the raw and seemingly inarticulate etched lines that produce the work's affect in the first place. In other words, the pink color silences the scream by reversing what Andy Warhol did in his famous series of lithographs. Instead of elevating an ordinary, ubiquitous commercial product to the level of art in a defiant, warped mimicry of consumerism and mass production, which was what Warhol did, the jacket of Pipelines commercializes a unique and meaningful work of art.29

One of the most obvious examples of Keret’s adroit use of postmodern stylistic devices is the story “Arkadi Hilwe Takes the Number Five.”
30
The title of the story offers the first hint about the tight symbiosis in the story between style and content as well as the volatile potential of its disparate elements; a potential that is fully realized in the story. Although the title reads like a smooth colloquialism, a casual reference to someone's bus ride, the discord begins already with the passenger's name. Arakadi is an obvious Russian name. Hilwe is an obvious Arabic name. Joining them together as someone's first and last name is immediately jarring to Israeli ears and highly ironic. The number five bus is also significant, not just because it traverses Dissengoff Street, Tel-Aviv's central and most symbolic street that often stands for the city itself. One of the first and most devastating suicide bombing attacks in Israel would take place aboard that bus on October of 1994, marking a shift in the conflict with the Palestinians that eventually led to the withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank more than ten years later.

True to its title, the story continues to describe an especially horrific Israel, a terrifying universe devoid of compassion, a disintegrating society awash with blood whose conflicting elements clash violently with one another in a cacophonous jumble. The story is packed to excess with gruesome images that are delivered with a chilling detachment that accentuates the horror. The first words that open the story are "son of a bitch," uttered by a fat drunkard who is waiting at the bus station with Arkadi, spoiling for a fight. Arkadi ignores him and continues to read his paper, which is plastered with gory pictures of mutilated bodies. "I am talking to you" the drunkard persists, adding the epithet "stinking Arab" for good measure. "Russian, Arkadi replied, hastening to hide behind the side of his family that was not maligned yet. My mother is from Riga. Sure, said the fat man with disbelief, and your father? From Nablus, admitted Arakadi and returned to his paper to look at a picture of "Burnt Kurdish dwarfs flung out of a giant toaster" and another picture of lynching.

The vulgar belligerence of the drunkard and the grisly pictures in the paper are but a prelude to a story that reveals a Clockwork Orange-like world of senseless, random violence that is fueled by the disparate ethnic and political factions that make up Israeli society, culture and history. Arkadi responds with chilling violence to the drunk's persistent nagging. "It was five o'clock and the bus did not arrive yet. In a speech on the radio the Prime Minister promised rivers of blood and the fat man was a head taller than him. [Arkadi] kicked the fat man's balls with his knee and followed it immediately with the crowbar he hid between the pages of the paper. The fat man fell to the ground and began crying, Arabs! Russians! Help! Arkadi gave him another smack on the head with the crowbar and sat back on the bench."

The frightening miscommunication continues in Arakadi's conversation with the bus driver, with an old passenger and finally with his mother. Don't worry about him, "he's epileptic," Arkadi tells the bus driver who wants to help the sprawled and spasmodic fat man. "If he's epileptic, where's all the blood from," the driver inquires. "From the Prime Minister's speech on the radio," Arakadi replies apathetically. Once inside the buss, Arakadi sees an old passenger working on a crossword puzzle and asks if he can help. "Was I talking to you, you stinking Arab," the old man snaps at Arakadi. In a twist on a crossword puzzle definition, Arakadi rejoins with "a question often used by Border Patrol policemen (28 letters)." Minutes later he gets off the bus and as it drives off he ducks behind a garbage bin anticipating the blast of the explosives he just left on it. "The explosion came seconds later covering Arakadi with trash." On his return home he finds his grandmother sitting in a tent on their roof-deck watching a commercial on TV in which a sexy swimsuit model "was swimming the backstroke in a river of blood that flowed along Arlozorov Street." Arkadi fantasizes about having sex with the model and does not hear his mother, who is trying to tell him that his grandfather was crucified this morning at the central bus station during a special operation to enforce parking regulations. "Are you talking to me?" he asks her. "No, I am talking to God," his mother replies angrily and curses in Russian. "Oh, Arakadi said in return and went back to the TV. The picture now focused on the model's lower body parts. The slimy blood flowed all around them without touching them. There was a supertitle above it and the emblem of the city, but Arakadi resisted the temptation to read it."

It is not hard to follow the different elements of Israeliana that crowd this short story. Recent Russian immigrants, dissipate Israeli youth; fat, lazy and gone bad, Arabs, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Intifada, the greater conflict in the Mid East, suicide bombings, social disparity, injustice, violence, racism, political cynicism, and above all the apathy of a society who has been flooded ad-nausea with all of these images by an invidious mass media that replicates and amplifies them until they cease to make sense, to represent a recognizable reality. The end of the story exemplifies the gory, macabre collage that makes it and by extension the country itself. Each of its pieces is packed with so much symbolism that it quite literally explodes or collapses and loses its ability to represent anything in a meaningful way.

Among the elements in this story that make no sense, the protagonist, Arakadi, is the least possible, a textual contrivance that highlights the text's postmodern stance as well as Keret's vigorous sense of humor. Although all literary characters are essentially textual inventions, they are inventions based on key mimetic values such as individualization, psychology, complexity and depth.31

In modernist texts characters are ontologically secure beings that construct the text and produce its meaning. Readers decipher the literary conventions and codes that make up a character and assemble them by translating these conventions into a coherent image drawn from recognized life experiences. Postmodernist characterization tampers with the assemblage of traits so that characters fail to develop a personality and become instead purely textual effects, empty signifiers that point nowhere. In extreme cases—Arakadi for instance—the postmodern character is not representative at all but illustrative, a cartoon that cannot be read for psychological subtext or representation of identity but as a political and social illustration of an ideological reality.

As a Russian Arab Arakadi is a conceivable character, but not a very plausible one. He is a signifier that cannot be easily signified in contemporary Israel where Jews and Arabs rarely socialize and seldom marry. But even if he were, his political allegiance makes his character improbable still. As an Arab-Jew blowing up Israeli Jews Arakadi is literally cutting his nose despite his face. This is also where the texts deepest irony lies. Arkadi's very being negates itself so that he no longer refers to a recognized reality and exits as a self-referential linguistic entity. By drawing attention to the impossibility of representation, the notion of character itself is deconstructed here. Arakadi thus becomes a stylistic device, a "wordy" creation that eliminates the mimesis of reality in fiction and causes the character to collapse into the discourse, as Buchweitz writes.32

It is here, when the traditional categories of interpretation fail to explain Arakadi, where Keret's style becomes his message. The writer's inability to cope with an uncertain, unstable, and insecure Israeli reality is conveyed through the abuse of literary norms designed to lament the loss of direction, meaning, and ideals. The textual chaos simulates disillusionment. Instead of attempting to pursue authenticity, the text abandons it and promotes the corruption of narrative conventions as a comment on a world that exhibits a similar disruption or collapse. 

One of the most affective ways in which narrative technique is corrupted in the story is the maintenance of a superficial, textual level that connects the story's disparate elements seamlessly. The story is made up of a string of jarring scenes or situations that are only circumstantially connected, placed one after the other in an artificial continuum. Almost none of them flows from what precedes it either syntactically or logically in the way we usually expect a traditional narrative to progress. 

"Son of a bitch," the fat man muttered and hit his fist hard against the bench of the bus station where he was sitting. Arakadi continued to look at the pictures in the paper, ignoring completely the words that surrounded them. Time went by slowly. Arakadi hated waiting for buses. "Son of a bitch," said the fat man again, this time more loudly and spat on the pavement close to Arkadi's feet. "Are you talking to me?" Arkadi asked, somewhat surprised and raised his eyes from the paper to meet the alcohol-shot eyes of the fat man. "No, I'm talking to my ass," the fat man yelled. "Oh," said Arakadi and returned to his paper. The paper had a color picture of mutilated bodies heaped high in the city square. 

Although the fat man announces himself loudly and crudely, Arakadi is oblivious to his existence. Not because he is uncomfortable or afraid of him, as we later learn, and as most people would in a similar situation. Arakadi simply does not see him or hear him and engages in a leisurely reading of his paper, dwelling on the mundane inconvenience of waiting for public transportation. Nothing in his behavior belies the ominous fact that he is a violent terrorist who in a few moments will execute his mission in cold blood. The mission itself is unimagined because Arakadi is presumed Jewish. Like the bloody pictures in the paper that are separated from their explanatory text, Arkadi remains cryptic as well, undecipherable. His literal reaction to the fat man's facetious reply, "no, I'm talking to my ass," only simulates understanding, and underscores the lack of communication between them or even the willingness to connect and empathize. So is Arakadi's final refusal or inability to read the supertitle on TV, which functions as a symbolic writing on the wall. But since Arkadi himself is a symbol he cannot interpret or comprehend his surroundings without an intermediary. He is one more symbol in a world populated by symbols.

It is perhaps strange, therefore, that many of Keret's other allegedly postmodern stories promote surprisingly naive, old fashioned and even conservative ideals such as patriotism, heroism, true friendship and especially true love. This has not been the most common assessment of them, although it was among the first. In one of the earliest interviews with the young writer, Gil Hovav declares Keret the first Jewish musketeer: "finally, we too have a charming and adventurous gunslinger, quick tempered and ready to fight, someone who will do everything he can to save his lady or civilization." Considering the clear system of values in Keret's 1992 Pipelines, writes Hovav, values that include honor, honesty, manliness, loyalty and a sense of adventure, one wonders if this interdisciplinary musketeer was born in the right century.33

Even those stories that initially shocked and confused readers and earned Keret a defiant, rebellious reputation promote a bourgeois, civilized world above all; bourgeois civilization with all its attendant ideals, including propriety, respect, fairness, chivalry and especially romance. 34 Although much of Keret's language and plots make such an assessment sound initially strange, one of the shortest stories in Pipelines, “Shlomo, Homo,You Mother-Fucking Fag” (שלמה הומו כוס אל-אומו), illustrates this point convincingly.

The story reads almost like a prolonged joke that decries the absence of meaning and grace. Shlomo is a miserable schoolboy who is picked on by his classmates during a class trip to the park. The teacher, who ostensibly is the only one who feels compassion for him, tries to comfort him some during the trip. But when at the end of the day Shlomo asks her pathetically: “Miss, why do all the kids hate me?” the teacher shrugs her tired shoulders, puffs on her cigarette and replies casually: “how should I know, I’m only the substitute teacher.” While the story deals flippantly with a harsh injustice, it offers no explanation or consolation for it. In many ways it even exacerbates the injustice and the atmosphere of violence and aggression by adding the epithets from the title to Shlomo’s name every time it is mentioned. The teacher, who significantly is a substitute teacher, not a “real” one, like the park, the artificial lake and the giant statue of an orange, which are all mockups of Zionist achievements, goes through the motions and helps Shlomo only because it is part of her job description. That she has no real compassion for the child becomes clear in the end, when she cannot or will not offer the boy any words of consolation. The boy is thus left alone in the desert of a new Israeli society that does not make a real effort to provide a meaningful message that would unite its disparate elements under a redeeming narrative.

Perhaps this is why some critics believed Keret's works bespoke despair and evinced a sense of gloom and helplessness about the state of the country. Author Yoram Kanyuk, who himself took part in the cultural revolution that transformed Israel after 1948 from a cohesive pioneering society to a more pluralistic and liberal one, commented with a mixture of admiration and regret on Keret's generation. Kanyuk delighted in the lean language of the young writers, in which he may have found an expression of his own efforts at limbering the stiffer Hebrew of his day.35 But he saw little connection between their mode of writing and the cultural agenda he and his peers promoted in the first decades after statehood. Young writers, comedians, and journalists today, Kanyuk wrote, seem to have abandoned the greater idea of the State in favor of a new kingdom, that of the city of Tel-Aviv, which they made into the capital of its own culture. This kingdom, he contends, has nothing to do with age-old Jewish traditions (נצח ירושלים) or with the more recent Zionist heritage (יפי הלילות בכנען). Keret's generation, Kanyuk seems to be saying, is not interested in carrying on a dialogue with former literary traditions, as his and former literary generations did. This is a generation content to shut itself in a Tel-Aviv of its imagination, detached from the rest of the country, floating in a vacuum.

Urbanity as a sign of sophistication, complexity and artifice as well as a designation of place was indeed one of the most distinct features of Keret's generation. Generally, it was understood as a defiant stance against what Kanyuk calls Zionist heritage, which valorized the land and vilified the city for reasons that had to do with Zionism's own revolutionary agenda. Perhaps this is why some readers understood Keret's hyper urban spaces as an expression of despair; despair of contemporary Israeli reality, as Gavriel Moked also writes.36 A society that is hermetically confined to the kind of urban spaces it occupies in Keret's literature must be ailing, these critics quipped, especially if one measures it against Zionist ideals that sought to sever the “problematic” connection between the Jew and the city. That this kind of critique was still leveled in the 1990s, even if most of the ethics that animated early Zionism faded by then points to the tenacious hold Zionist ideals had on a culture that was created in their image.

The confusion which Kanyuk and Moked felt about Keret and other writers is strange because both critics identify some of the core issues that constitute the literary dialogue these young new writers conducted with his predecessors without identifying it as such. But as "Arkadi" and many of Keret's other stories make clear, the sense of despair clearly denotes disillusionment. The abuse of literary norms that grabs readers' attention, the postmodern patina of the texts should not be read as literary negligence or incompetence. Keret's Israel is populated by black-and-white stick-figures as a stance against a treacherous reality that has flattened rounder figures and made their existence doubtful and problematic. His literary engagement with the times differs from the engagement of his literary forerunners only in kind but not in principle. Keret's alleged withdrawal from contemporary Israeli life—Kanyuk and Moked probably mean the traditional commitment by Israeli authors to social issues—ensconcing himself in a semi-virtual urban bubble called Tel-Aviv, marks the peculiar passive aggression that distinguishes his generation. Unable or unwilling to influence what they perceived as a dysfunctional, morally relative culture that seemed to lack the instinct for social and cultural reform, Keret and some of his contemporaries retreat into more confined worlds of their own making over which they have much better control: they can warp these fictional worlds in a frustrated act of displacement or recreate them anew on a smaller and more manageable scale in which romance functions as an element of escape, consolation, and grace.

Indeed, Keret's preoccupation with romance and love was far less noted than the jarring postmodern idiom that characterized his works and conveyed their apocalyptic tenor. Although Keret's frustrated heroes often punish themselves and direct their aggression against their own person, they often find refuge and solace in the pursuit and attainment, however brief, of so-called romantic love. These opposite solipsistic expressions—passive aggression and emotional fulfillment—that transpire within the confines of one's own privately created world, mark an easing of the tension between individual and community that was the hallmark of modern Hebrew literature since its beginning. In other words, the desire and search for True Love becomes an organizing principle of redemptive significance.

A simple statistical examination of Keret’s works will clearly show how in the four collections of short stories he published between 1992 and 2002— Pipelines 1992, Missing Kissinger, 1994, Kneller’s Happy Campers, 1998, Cheap Moon, 2002—the number of stories devoted to relationships, not just with women actually, but with male friends and even with pets, but always and repeatedly relationships involving two, has increased from a fifth of the stories in the first anthology, Pipelines, to two-thirds of the stories in the last anthology, Cheap Moon. 37

Love, romance or abiding friendships gradually emerge in Keret’s works as answers to some of the existential confusion they portray, to a world that lost its moral compass and makes little sense. This takes place already in the last story in Keret’s first anthology, Pipelines, a story called “Crazy Glue,” in which a married couple is isolated from everyone and everything around them in a brief moment of connubial bliss. In the story, the couple’s relationship is threatened by an affair the husband has with a colleague at work. Fearful that his wife suspects the affair, the husband decides to come home early one day instead of staying out late with his mistress. On his return he discovers that his wife glued down everything in the house: “I tried to move one of the chairs and sit on it. It didn’t move. I tried again. Not even a millimeter. She glued it to the floor. The refrigerator didn’t open either, she glued it too.” The narrator finally finds his wife glued as well, “hanging upside down, her bare feet attached to the living-room’s high ceiling.” Confused and annoyed at first, he tries to peel her off but then gives up and sees the humor in the situation. “I laughed too. She was so pretty and illogical, hanging upside down like that from the ceiling. Her long hair falling down, her breasts poised like two drops of water under her white T. So Beautiful.” He then climbs on a pile of books in order to kiss her. “I felt her tongue touching mine, the pile of books pushed away from under me; I felt that I was floating in the air, touching nothing, hanging only by her lips.”

The magical-realism with which the story ends masks the more conventional and even conservative values it promotes of marital fidelity and constancy. Strangely, the beginning of the story feels like a throwback to earlier times, with the husband hurrying to work in the morning and the wife staying at home to do house chores. The mise-en-scene as well as the dialogue seem deliberately conventional, almost clichéd, including the husband’s parting words “It’s already Eight, … I must run,” after which he picks up his briefcase and kisses her on the cheek, and his predictable addition “I’ll be home late today because…” These, as well as the row the couple has before that, somehow conjure up a 1950s American film, pastel colors and all. The only indication it takes place in Israel is the Hebrew of the story and the mistress’ name, Michal.

The fact that the happy ending of such optimistic films is realized by the end of the story through magic—albeit ironically—only heightens the pathos and deepens the longing for such solutions in the contemporary Israeli context. This is true for the magical superglue as well, which is another metaphor for the frustrating wish for clarity and stability. Placed at the end of a volatile anthology, then, “Crazy Glue” presents a solution of sorts that privileges permanency and especially love. The story also exhibits two major components of Keret’s writing: the longing for the restoration of bourgeois values and the universal frame of references and imagery, especially from popular media, through which these values are manipulated and delivered.39 The final image of the story combines the two whimsically and eloquently by expressing reconciliation, unity and the permanence of love through a common cinematic device, the “freeze frame.”

This sense of isolation within the confines of a romantic relationship, unhinged from the immediate spatial and temporal surroundings is much more pronounced in Keret’s second anthology, Missing Kissinger, in which almost half of the stories deal with coupling. These stories abandon larger social or moral issues and instead retreat into the narrower, simpler confines of 1-on-1 relationships. The narrator finds refuge from an incomprehensible world of disappearing borders, shifting meanings and contradictory messages in the clear and simple allegiance he pledges to and demands from his immediate partners and derives his very reason for existence from the strength of these relationships.

The world in Kissinger is certainly a violent world of disillusioned adolescents who grow up to discover that there are no dreams, that the relative safety of childhood is gone forever and that life is in the gutter, to use a familiar Israeli phrase (החיים בזבל). However, the protagonists compensate for it by moving between nostalgia for the past—albeit often a problematic past, with broken homes and dysfunctional families—and attempts to find companionship and love, even briefly, with someone they hope to forge a special connection that will return a sense of stability, meaning and belonging to their life.

The story “Corby’s Girl,” in which two guys vie for the same girl, conveys this sense eloquently. At the beginning of the story the beautiful, tall and blondish Marina dates Corby, a common street thug (ארס). The uneven pairing is quizzical, especially to the narrator’s brother, Miron, who eventually woos the girl away from Corby. Corby does not fight to have his girl back, but he does punish Miron. “You stole my girl while I was still dating her,” he yells at Miron after beating him up with a crowbar and kicking him hard in the ribs. But then he does something peculiar that is less in keeping with his image and reputation. “Do you know,” he says to Miron, “that there is a commandment against what you did.? … It’s called ‘thou shalt not steal.’ But you, it runs past you like water.” He then grabs Miron’s brother and forces him to repeat what the bible proscribes as punishment for violating that commandment. Fearing Corby’s brutality, the brother refuses to comply but is finally tortured into confessing it: “Death, I whispered. Those who violate it deserve to die.” Satisfied, Corby lets the two go and turns to his friend. Did you hear that? He says to him, “he deserves to die. And that, he pointed toward the sky, did not come from me but from the mouth of God. There was something in his voice as if he too was about to cry. Yalla, he said, lets’ go, I only wanted you to hear who's right.”

Actual displays of love or romance barely if ever appear in this story, certainly not warm and compassionate expressions of them. Yet the story is one of Keret’s most tender and romantic stories in which love does conquer all. It subdues even a brutal thug like Corby, whose violence is really a seering expression of his heartfelt devotion to his lost girlfriend. Love elevates the uneducated, inarticulate Corby into a literate judge and turns an idle bum into a moral and ultimately also a kind and forgiving ogre. Corby does not really think of his girlfriend as property that can be stolen. But he does subscribe to a rudimentary gentlemanly conduct, which Miron violated. Under these circumstances, Corby’s vindication is perceived as both right and fair toward Miron, and touching toward Marina. Even Miron sees it at the end. Was it worth it, his brother asks him, now that she’s with you? “Nothing in the world is worth that night,” replies Miron, who confesses to his brother that he has been thinking a lot about Corby since then. It is not as if Miron thinks Marina or any other girl unworthy of the hassle he went through. That’s not it. He is extremely sorry for taking Marina away from Corby. What he mourns at the end of the story is the demise of Corby’s true love.

“Corby’s Girl” is one of many stories by Keret in which the quest for romance ultimately fails; not just romantic relationships between lovers, but also romance in the sense of a naive belief in an idealized existence, like in the story “A Hole in the Wall” (חור בקיר). “On Bernadot Bouleverad,” begins the story, “right by the central bus station, there’s this hole in the wall… Someone told Udi once that if you shout your wishes into that hole in the wall, they come true.” Although Udi didn’t believe it, he tried his luck one day and shouted into the wall that he wanted Dafna to fall in love with him. The wish did not come true, but another one Udi made, to have an angel for a friend, did materialize. The angel, however, turned out to be a bit of a dud. He walked around with his wings folded under a big coat, refused to fly and seemed altogether depressed. The two hang out together for a few years and seem to bond until one day Udi pushes the angel off of the roof, “for kicks, he didn’t mean anything bad by it, he just wanted to make him fly for a bit… But the angel fell down five stories like a sack of potatoes” and splattered on the pavement below. Udi then realizes that, “nothing the angel ever told him was true; that he wasn’t even an angle, just a liar with wings.”

Romance in this story is inverted. Ostensibly, nothing in it is romantic except, of course, for its highly romantic premise. Udi’s life itself is utterly devoid of romance. Like his friend the angel, he seems slightly depressed, someone who leads a glum existence without purpose or joy. It is surprising that Udi even bothers to go to the wall and shout into it because that would denote either gullible optimism or desperation, the first of which Udi seems to lack and the second he is beyond. It is surprising still what Udi wishes for, an angel, and that his wish actually comes true. But the most surprising thing of all is Udi’s reaction at the end of the story, his shock and dismay not at the death of the man, but at the death of the angel. The real romantic core of the story is Udi’s naiveté, his unrequited longing for a “miracle” even after years during which the magic slowly wears away.

In part, Keret's focus on relationships or love is the legacy of earlier trends that began in the 1960s, especially by female writers (Amalia Kahana-Carmon, Yehudit Hendel, Shulamit Hareven). Their cultivation of intimate, interior spaces over the larger national and social engagement that characterized many of their male contemporaries slowly came to dominate Hebrew fiction since the 1980s. But even these earlier texts by women, that explored the economy of romantic relationships, were contextualized within a viable and discernible Israeli environment, even when they rebelled against it. What distinguishes the pursuit and attainment of love, or more precisely “couplehood” in the narratives of the 1990s is not just a rebellion but a disengagement from a clearly identifiable Israel; a literary world that looses much of its local color in favor of elements borrowed from a more global culture. Love becomes chief among these elements not only because it insulates against a problematic Israeli present but also because of the central place it occupies in the lending culture, the popular culture of the West.

Keret may have written extremely brief texts that never develop the wealth of issues they touch on, like a string of trailers that are never followed by an actual film, as one critic put it. 39 But what these “trailers” denoted was precisely the problem - the absence of an actual film; a film in the sense of a grand, national narrative. There was no “film” because there was no “script” and there was no script because, metaphorically speaking, no one knew what to put in it and how to write it in a post-Zionist or post national age. Critics may have been annoyed at what they called Keret's contrived pose, at his smarmy linguistic imitations twice removed in which everything sounded so “cool,” like “two tourists stuck in a minefield.”40 But this is just how a young Israeli X Generation felt at the time, and Keret, better than many of his peers, gave that generation one of its most poignant and evocative voices.

Dr. Yaron Peleg's scholarship is concerned with the history of modern Hebrew literature as well as the invention or production of Israeli culture in the first half of the twentieth century and the legacy of such key cultural innovations as language, literature, body culture, militarism, religious holidays, and music in the second half of the twentieth century and beyond. His most recent publication, Directed by God, Jewishness in Contemporary Israeli Film and Television, looks at the ideological changes in Israeli society in recent decades and the growing influence of the Jewish religion on secular culture in Israel. He is the Kennedy Leigh Lecturer in Modern Hebrew Studies at University of Cambridge.

"Love, Suddenly: Etgar Keret Invents Hebrew Romance" was first published in Hebrew Studies 49, no. 1 (2008): 143-164.

1 Gershon Shaked is the most persuasive proponent of this distinguishing feature. See his הסיפורת העברית, 1880-1980 (Hasiporet Ha'ivrit, Hebrew Fiction, 1880-1980) (Jerusalem: Keter, 1977, 1988).
2 See Robert Polhemus, Erotic Faith (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1990), in which he documents and investigates the connections between romance and the novel during the genre's hay day in the nineteenth century.
3 This has been a common reading of the novel as illustrated by Gershon Shaked, for instance, in גל חדש בסיפורת העברית (Gal hadash ba-siporet ha-ivrit, New Wave in Hebrew Fiction) (Merhavyah: Sifriyat Po'alim, 1974). The same can be said for New Wave female writers like Yehudit Hendel, Amalia Kahana-Carmon and Yehudit Almog, who, generally speaking, seem more concerned with a feminist agenda than with the potential for romance in their works from that time. In the long run, the focus of these women writers on physical and psychological interior spaces and on the political dynamics of romantic relationships legitimized such concerns leading, eventually, to the more integral incorporation of romance into Hebrew letters.
4 This is an obviously cursory list and a truncated literary history that is meant to draw attention to the general lack of interest or attention given to romance in Hebrew letters in comparison to other western literatures.

5 Miri Talmon-Bohm, A State of Becoming: Transitions in Israeli Cinema and Culture, unpublished manuscript, p. 2.
6 See Gilead Morahg and Alan Mintz, The Boom in Israeli Literature, (Hanover, NH : Brandeis University Press) as well as Avner Holtzman, מפת דרכים (Road Map) (Hakibbutz Hame'uhad, 2005).
7 One of the most prominent writers of the 1990s, Orly Castel-Bloom, may seem glaringly absent from this analysis. It is my contention that despite her obvious post-modernist style, Castel-Bloom's works continued to engage directly with the national issues that preoccupied her predecessors. The legacy and future of Zionism deeply inform her works and are central to their understanding. This is not the case with the works of Keret and his ilk.
8 Gadi Taub, המרד השפוף (Hamered Hashafuf, The Disspirited Rebellion) (Tel-Aviv: Hakibbutz Hame'uhad, 1997).
9 On the significance of the Six Day War in Israeli history and its profound influence on its culture and politics, see Tom Segev, 1967 (Tel-Aviv: Hakibutz Hame'uhad, 2005).
10 I am referring here to the 1970s and 1980s during which Israel's military and economic power were firmly established and were not yet eroded morally by the escalating conflict with the Palestinians and its current reverberations in Israeli and world politics.
11 Ibid, p. 3

12 Early in his book, Ibid., Taub credits this sense of disconnect to the first Intifada. He writes, "as long as the political problems in Israel had to do with the nation's very existence and Israelis agreed on a common and more or less just way to ensure it, the personal and the communal coexisted well together" (pp. 13-14). But since 1967 this coexistence began to unravel, becoming increasingly uneasy after the 1982 war in Lebanon and especially after the Intifada in 1987. "A system of values based on secularism and humanism," continues Taub, "cannot support the occupation of another nation beyond a certain point," and a soldier who is required to forcefully maintain this control has to find at some point a rationale for his own behavior and that of his government. If the soldier is not religious, "he must find a political justification for his actions. The search for political rationalization becomes a deep psychological need, more than an intellectual one so that, suddenly, a lot of weight is placed on the political" (p. 14). Among the most common reactions to this tension was a great wish to disconnect oneself from anything political, a refusal to deal with it and a tendency to turn away from it and look elsewhere.
13 The first Intifada broke out against this background, and when the country was rallied to fight the Palestinians in the name of some of the tired old slogans about self-defense and existential threats, the call did not ring so true anymore. Moreover, the discrepancy precipitated a cognitive dissonance of national proportions that could not be maintained for long. Taub quotes an angry teenager who had this to say in 1988:
Life is not what it used to be, on all counts. All the great visions, which in our case means the overused Zionist vision, are preparing us for a vague fulfillment that will never materialize and designate our lives here and now as an interim stage, a state of emergency full of dangers whose end no one can predict. The paranoid assumption, even if true … that our proud and small Jewish state is constantly under threat, is used as a shrewd ploy to unite the people and as a wonderful excuse for all the things we ought to have accomplished but never managed to after forty years, five wars and thirty four records by Hava Alberstein. (p. 19)

This heated but unusual response for the a-political 1980s ends on a more typical postmodernist note: forty years of Zionist development are dismissed by comparing them with a veteran, folksy singer, Hava Alberstein, ridiculed here for her old-fashioned music and goofy lyrics from a bygone, gullible era. The majority of young people who were of army age did not actively engage with this tension, certainly not politically. In fact, a sense of disillusion and political disengagement marked the age and distinguished it from past generations. Taub predicates his book on this phenomenon, which he defines by the oxymoron "dispirited rebellion."
14 Eva Ilouz, Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (Berkeley : University of California Press, 1997). p. 91.
15 These references were ubiquitous throughout the 1990s. See the footnotes below for key texts in which they were made.
16 Gil Hovav, “סיפורים מהביצים של הנשמה” (Stories of the Balls of Your Soul) כל העיר (Kol Ha'ir), Feb. 28, 1992. Eventually, the stories were published in more respected media, like the socialist daily דבר (Davar), the Tel-Aviv weekly העיר (Ha'ir) and the Jerusalem weekly כל העיר.
17 Both the reading public and the literary establishment doted on Keret almost from the start. His stories captivated disinterested teenagers as well as the heart of more seasoned critics. Students in a problematic Bat-Yam high-school, for instance, who usually had no stomach for literature, reacted enthusiastically after their teacher introduced them to some of Keret's stories: "See, that's the way to write! Short, with a little violence, a little sex and some humor beside. Now, that's literature!" Ibid. Enthusiastic gut reactions of this kind were soon accompanied by more considered evaluations by leading writers and critics like Batya Gur, who pronounced Keret's stories "genuine works of art." See, Batya Gur, הארץ (Ha'aretz), June 17, 1994 (no title).
18 Fabiana Hefetz explored the internal world of those misfits. Keret's contemporary protagonists, writes Hefetz, live in a truly pluralistic universe; a morally defunct environment that has no clear or set system of values. However, through adroit literary manipulation readers find themselves enjoying what they would otherwise find offensive: bad language, violence, various descriptions of hell and even death, almost as if they were watching a good TV show. See, F. Hefetz, “רק הגיל צעיר” (Young only biologically), ידיעות אחרונות (Yedi'ot Aharonot), March 6, 1992. 19 Yehudit Orian, “ליצנות מרירה ופסימיזם מחוייך” (A Smiley Pessimism), ידיעות אחרונות, May 6, 1994. This is a strong statement that puts Keret on a par with older masters of canonical literature and legitimizes his innovative incorporation of popular "low" culture by comparing it to the Bible.
20 See Laurence Silberstein's study of this critical trend in, The Postzionist Debates: Knowledge and Power in Israeli Culture (New-York: Routledge, 1999).
21 Abraham Balaban, for instance, predicated an entire study of contemporary Hebrew literature on some of its definitions and analyzed the works of Keret and others according to them. See, גל אחר בסיפורת העברית: סיפורת עברית פוסטמודרנית (Gal aher basiporet ha'ivrit: siporet ivrit postmodernistit, Another Wave in Hebrew Fiction: Postmodern Hebrew Fiction) (Keter: Jerusalem, 1995).
22 In 1996 David Gurevitch conclusively presented Keret as a postmodernist in his article, “חלומות ממוחזרים” (Recycled Dreams), in which he includes other writers, most notably Orly Castel-Bloom and Gafi Amir. See, עיתון 77 (Iton 77), vol. 194, March, 1996, pp. 38-43.
23 Y. Orian, ibid, F. Hefetz, ibid, Alon Gayer, הארץ, June, 12, 1994.
24 B. Gur, ibid.
25 Gideo Samet, הארץ, August 19, 1994, Einat Avrahami, “הרבה בקרובים - והסרט איננו,” (Lots of Trailers but No Movie), מעריב (Ma'ariv,) May 6, 1994, Liza Chodnovsky, “?האם קיימים חורים שחורים” (Do Black Holes Exist?), עיתון 77, August-September 1988, Gavriel Moked, מעריב-יומן תל אביב (Ma'ariv-Yoman Tel-Aviv), December 18, 1998.
26 Yigal Schwartz, “הפוך על הפוך” (Twice Inverted), הארץ ספרים (Ha'aretz Book Review), May 14, 1997, p. 6.
27 Asher Reich, “לאתגר קרת לא אכפת” (Etgar Keret Doesn't Care), מעריב, June 22, 1994.
For reasons beyond the publisher's control the cover of the second edition was replaced with an original illustration of black lines over a pink background depicting a tranquil Tel-Aviv street scape in which various small details are surrealistically warped or missing. The affect is similar to what I describe above.
29 A similar twist occurs in the jacket of Keret's second anthology, Missing Kissinger, which features a reproduction of “the Crying Child;” a sentimental painting that is probably the most recognizable icon of kitsch in Israel, sold in popular street markets as posters, oil paintings, painted rugs etc. The kitschy quality of the picture resides in the utter lack of ambivalence about the rosy-faced little boy with his sandy hair, sad, blue eyes, button nose and sweet, red lips. Even the tears that trickle down the boy's plump cheeks are meant to highlight the simple, emotional affect of the image at the expense of a more complex artistic engagement. One of the most important aspects of the garish portrait, and indeed of kitsch in general, is its excess, the overabundance of sentimentalism, sensationalism, melodrama and romance that finally numbs viewers to any and all of these emotions. See Gurevitch's discussion of kitsch this in his article, ibid. Many stories in the anthology are presented through similar excess; through the accumulation of familiar cultural references and quotes that ostensibly stay at surface level and never leave it to reflect on it from above by providing a more distant perspective.
30 Pipelines, Ibid, pp.62-64.
31 My discussion on postmodern characterization here is based on a paper delivered by Nurit Buchweitz at the NAPH conference in Stanford, California in June 2005 titled The Evacuation of Character in Postmodernist Prose: The case of Keret and Kastel-Bloom.
32 Buchweitz does not analyze this particular story. I extrapolate from her more general discussion.
33 Gil Hovav, ידיעות אחרונות, Feb. 28, 1992.
34 Arik Glassner writes that “Keret’s heroes are not entirely losers. They are goody-two-shoes in a macho world, that is, losers in one context but part of the hegemony in another,” “לקרוא את מסעי גוליבר באיסלנדית” (Likro et mas'ot Guliver be Islandit, Reading Guliver’s Travels in Icelandic), הארץ, January 28, 2004.
35 "I read [the works of Keret's generation] and I feel jealous. When I did similar things in my days the critics tore me to shreds. Keret is being taught at the university and will receive the Israel prize yet… Keret's ability and that of his peers to express themselves this way vindicates my own failure." Yoram Kanyuk, “כמו אדישות שמחה” (Like Happy Apathy), הארץ ספרים, Dec. 16, 1998, p. 6.
36 Gavriel Moked, יומן תל-אביב, מעריב, Dec. 18, 1998.
37 And this peculiar fact holds true for Keret’s contemporaries as well, Taub, Weil, and Amir, who published less than Keret during that same time, but whose collections of short stories—always short stories—deal primarily with the dynamics of romance in urban settings.
38 The appellation “bourgeois” here is meant positively as a sign of stability, propriety, civility etc., and not in the more derogatory sense it had in socialist-Zionist discourse.
39 E. Avrahami, Ibid.
40 Y. La’or, Ibid.

Therapy Cat

Therapy Cat

It was not a snub. The therapy cat he brought on our second date, sitting like a bodyguard on his lap at Zito’s Pasteria. Me showing sufficient cleavage, he with his therapy cat, called Uma Thurman.

This was useful, he said, for all of us.

“We all need a bit of it,” he said.

I agreed. However, I hadn’t known (I explained) that there was such a creature. I knew about therapy dogs of course. But not cats.

“Oh yes”, he said, with his thick, boyish hair. “They’re growing in acceptance.”

The cat was white and very round. I found myself feeling a bit less than romantic, leaning forward and attempting to be even the tiniest bit showy. She owned his lap. Her back arched, but so did mine. She was probably fixed. So was I.

He said the goodness of a therapy animal ripples. I agreed. I used to have a husband. In a way, he was my therapy animal, until we stopped being good for one another. Good for the soul is good for everyone, of course.

We had ordered crab, and the cat looked angry. In spy movies, cats are diabolical animals, as cold and murderous as their owners. This was never true. “This is my second date in the last thirty-five years,” he said. I nodded. It was my fifteenth date since my divorce, a date that was obviously going nowhere. He had lost his wife. She died. He said they never really dated, he and his wife. “Nah. We just hit it off, and that was that,” he said.

He stroked Uma Thurman, therapy cat. “Uma knows,” he said.

“So listen. Let’s not look at this as a date at all,” I suggested. He looked at me as if to say something, then readjusted the way the cat was sitting on his lap. “Yes, well, there is a lot of bacon in the world. It all smells great but then you find out what it does to your heart,” he said.

It seemed unfair, how cute this man was. Red and gold hair, not quite smiling. I imagined how frisky a man like this could be without all of the scar tissue.

“May I pet Uma?” I asked. I knew that I’d never see him again, and there was always something soothing about petting an animal.


First published in Jellyfish Review.

Meg Pokrass is the author of four collections and one award winning book of prose poetry. Her books include Damn Sure Right (Press 53, 2011) My Very End of the Universe— Five Mini-Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the Form (Rose Metal Press, 2014), Bird Envy (2014), Cellulose Pajamas (Blue Light Book Award winner,  2016)) and The Dog Looks Happy Upside Down (Etruscan Press, 2016).  Her stories and poems have appeared and are forthcoming in over 250 literary magazines including Five Points, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Gigantic, Great Jones Street, Matchbook, Newfound, New World Writing, Bayou, Rattle, 100-Word Story, Wigleaf, Green Mountains Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Talking Writing, Every Writer’s Resource, The Rumpus, Failbetter, storySouth, decomP,  Flash Magazine, and two Norton anthologies:  New Microfiction (W.W. Norton, 2018) and Flash Fiction International (W.W. Norton, 2015). Showcased by Adweek and Galleycat/Media Bistro as “Digital Author to Watch”, sheis considered an innovator in the use of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms for writers. Meg serves as an international writing competition judge, Fiction Curator for the innovative Great Jones Street App, and Festival Curator for the new The Bath Flash Fiction Festival.

Alligators at Night

Alligators at Night

You remember when you lived in Florida briefly, walking to the store with your husband in the middle of the night. You remember the sound of alligators crooning like deranged, nocturnal cows, all the way to the Seven-Eleven, from each side of the highway. You remember thinking that they must regularly sing to people on their way to the Seven-Eleven, mostly a welcome sound, because there is a three-hour walk there, and a three-hour walk home, and the night sky is so velvety in the summer, and the singing alligators are like jazz. It’s like you’re in a jazz club, but walking outside.

Walking to the Seven-Eleven, what you sometimes want is to never actually get there. Because you are holding hands, feeling his warm, fine skin. He has not yet had his dose of whiskey and his breath has not yet become thick as a mushroom cloud. You have not yet said you have a migraine, and that you don’t really feel like snuggling because your body is so sweaty after the six-hour walk. You have not yet cried or threatened to leave and you have not yet been quieted by your husband with his body half asleep and given up the fight.

You remember that your walk to the Seven-Eleven is glorious, you are both present but so quiet, the two of you loving the sound of strange overgrown creatures who are so close to you, but attached to their watery homes. Sometimes you can imagine these animals are chasing you and your husband all the way to the Seven-Eleven, but mostly you just think of them there in the dark, without alcohol and probably without love.

First published in Atticus Review.
 


Meg Pokrass is the author of four collections and one award winning book of prose poetry. Her books include Damn Sure Right (Press 53, 2011) My Very End of the Universe— Five Mini-Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the Form (Rose Metal Press, 2014), Bird Envy (2014), Cellulose Pajamas (Blue Light Book Award winner,  2016)) and The Dog Looks Happy Upside Down (Etruscan Press, 2016).  Her stories and poems have appeared and are forthcoming in over 250 literary magazines including Five Points, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Gigantic, Great Jones Street, Matchbook, Newfound, New World Writing, Bayou, Rattle, 100-Word Story, Wigleaf, Green Mountains Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Talking Writing, Every Writer’s Resource, The Rumpus, Failbetter, storySouth, decomP,  Flash Magazine, and two Norton anthologies:  New Microfiction (W.W. Norton, 2018) and Flash Fiction International (W.W. Norton, 2015). Showcased by Adweek and Galleycat/Media Bistro as “Digital Author to Watch”, sheis considered an innovator in the use of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms for writers. Meg serves as an international writing competition judge, Fiction Curator for the innovative Great Jones Street App, and Festival Curator for the new The Bath Flash Fiction Festival.

THESE ARE NOT OUR FACES...

THESE ARE NOT OUR FACES...

These are not our faces, this is not what we look like. Do you think [these writers look] like this? Not so, They're wearing play faces to fool you. But the play faces come off when the writing begins. Frozen in black and silver for you now, these are simply masks. We who lie for a living are wearing our liar faces, false faces, made to deceive the unwary. We must be, for if you believe these [artworks] we look just like everyone else. Protective coloration, that's all it is. Read the books, sometimes you can catch sight of us in there. We look like gods and fools and bards and queens, singing worlds into existence, conjuring something from nothing, juggling words into all the patterns of night. Read the books, that’s when you see us properly, naked priestesses and priests of forgotten religions, our skins glistening with scented oils, scarlet blood dripping down from our hands, bright birds flying out from our open mouths, perfect we are and beautiful in the fire's golden light. There was story I was told as a child about a little girl who peeked into a writer's window one night and saw him writing. He had taken his false face off to write and then hung it behind the door for he wrote with his real face on and she saw him and he saw her and from that day to this, nobody has ever seen the little girl again. Since then, writers have looked like other people, even when they write. And sometimes their lips move and sometimes they stare into space longer and more intently than anything that isn't a cat. But their words describe their real faces, the ones they wear underneath. That's why people who encounter writers are rarely satisfied by the wholly inferior person that they meet. ‘I thought you'd be taller or older or younger or prettier or wiser,’ they tell us, with words or wordlessly. That’s not what I look like, I tell them. This is not my face.”

Excerpt from Neil Gaiman’s The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction (Harper Collins), published May 2016.

By kind permission of the author, "These Are Not Our Faces" features in the introductions to The Creative Process exhibitions.

 

Ce ne sont pas nos visages, ce n’est pas notre apparence. Pensez-vous que [ces écrivains] ressemblent en vérité à ses portraits? Pas du tout. Ils portent des faux-visages pour vous tromper. Mais les faux-visages tombent lorsque l’écriture commence. Coincés en noir et argent pour vous maintenant, ce ne sont que des masques. Nous, qui mentons pour gagner notre vie, portons nos visages de menteurs, des faux-visages, faits pour tromper le peu méfiant. Il faut que nous le soyons. De cette manière, si vous croyez ces photos, nous sommes comme tout le monde. Du simple camouflage, c’est tout ce que c’est. 

Lisez les livres. Parfois, vous pouvez y retrouver des nuances de nous-mêmes. Nous avons l’air de dieux et d’imbéciles, de bardes et de reines, chantant des mondes pour les faire exister, faisant des choses apparaître du rien, jonglant avec des mots au sein de toutes les formes de la nuit. Lisez les livres, c’est là où vous nous voyez proprement - des prêtresses et des prêtres nus, des croyants oubliés – notre peau luisant d’huiles parfumées, du sang écarlate ruisselant de nos mains, des oiseaux brillants s’envolant de nos bouches ouvertes, parfaits sommes-nous, et beaux, sous la lumière dorée du feu. 

Il y avait une histoire qu’on m’a racontée quand j’étais petit. Elle était pour une petite fille qui, une nuit, a jeté un coup d’œil par la fenêtre d’un écrivain et elle l’a vu écrire. Il avait enlevé son faux-visage pour écrire et l’avait accroché derrière la porte car il écrivait avec son vrai visage. Elle l’a vu, et il l’a vu et à partir de ce jour, jusqu’aujourd’hui personne n’a jamais vu la petite fille. Dès lors, les écrivains ont l’air de gens ordinaires, même quand ils écrivent. Parfois, leurs lèvres bougent et parfois ils regardent fixement dans l’espace plus longtemps et plus attentivement que tout ce qui n’est pas un chat. Mais leurs mots décrivent leurs vrais visages, ceux qu’ils portent en-dessous. C’est pourquoi les gens qui rencontrent des écrivains sont rarement satisfaits par la personne entièrement inférieure qu’ils voient. « Je pensais que vous seriezplus grand de taille, ou plus vieux, ou plus jeune, ou plus joli, ou plus sage - nous disent-ils avec ou sans mots. Je ne suis pas comme cela, je leur dis. Ce n’est pas mon visage. »

traduit de l’anglais par Vasilena Koleva

A Woman Told Me This - Five Pieces

A Woman Told Me This - Five Pieces

Stasis in darkness.
Then the substanceless blue
Pour of tor and distances. 
–SYLVIA PLATH
“Arial”

Perhaps I am his hope. But then she is his present.
And if she is his present, I am not his present.
Therefore, I am not, and I wonder why no-one has noticed
I am dead and taken the trouble to bury me. For I am utterly collapsed.
I lounge with glazed
eyes, or weep tears of sheer weakness.
–ELIZABETH SMART
By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept

Photographs by Catherine McNamara

 

A Woman Told Me This

A woman told me this: when her lover died, she went to the church and sat in the second-to-last pew, where she knew she would attract little attention for they had been colleagues for a stretch. At the front of the church stood the man’s wife with her shredded curls, and the two sons whose foibles and brushes with the law and opulent tattoos she knew as intimately as those of the children she’d never had. Did she feel robbed of a life? He had told her that she would. That one day it would seize up inside of her, the wish to uproot all he had ever planted in her, every gasp and cell and flourish of his liquid and the burning of her skin and parts. He had told her she would want to eviscerate her own bowels to be emptied of him, and remove her heart from its safe cage as a wild native, splashing it to the ground with its torn tubes. Her lover had been a dramatic, vital man who liked to toy with their darkest entwined currents, especially as he stroked her hair in bed, or his knuckles drew across her belly.

The woman told me these things, adding that the embrace of this man was the only thing that she would take from this earth.

 

The Not Sought-After Truth

We would have preferred ignorance, in this case. It’s as though you have been harbouring her and she has been eating our flesh. Eating through our fingertips and blackening them with her poison. How many years now? Ten or so? You never troubled yourself to think there would be a brutal ending, it is only brutal endings that give pure relief. Not battered agreements or smoothed-out divisions as though on cloth. We’re not having any of that. If you ever wanted her locked in your bowels, her fingers extended into you, giving you that disgusting pleasure you deserve, then feed her in her cage, give her more of the scraps and bones she has lived on till now.

Do not tell me this because I am your son. Your truths will dissolve within you, putrid water into soil. I hear the crashing of your implosion and we are clean.

 

catherine-mcnamara-5b.jpg

My Family

He says My Family and the furthest reaches of your organism, regions that have dwelled in peace within your being as an undiscovered species, are incinerated by light. He says, My Family, and you are awash outside a citadel where the walls run into the sky and these are walls that would repel you with a charge, send you smashing across a room.

He says My Family, and you know you have reached your last bastion of hope, and there will be further chains, and no water.

He says My Family and you remember you were once chaste.

He says, My Family, and you imagine the song of their flesh, her cries, his body sweeping, their original compulsion; the shifted radiance, the old radiance.

He says My Family and you wonder how that pointing of his body felt within the sleeve of yours.

He says My Family and you remember feeling wishful, all intuition jammed.

 

ARTWORK BY MIA FUNK

ARTWORK BY MIA FUNK

The Things You Will Never Know About Your Lover

When your lover walks away to the queue at the airport after you’ve drawn a long hair from his shirt and this is not the time to cry has been whispered against your damp neck, a Ute Lemper song flings into your head. Little Water Song. You watch the assembly of his face, the stones are piling on your chest. Cairns and shrines should be made of your dry ribs. What do you know right now, and then before, about this man whose back you have inhaled as though you had given birth to him? Would you even recognise the face he wears over that border, in the worn car and kitchen, in the sedate bedroom with its cries? Would you even recognise the notes in that voice? 

He waves and your guesses are so childish. 

 

Foundation Song

He describes the persimmon tree as an equilibrium of weight and colour, a tree Gauguin would have liked. They stand at the bottom of her wrangled garden. The wet branches are clotted with scathing orange balls you could plunge a finger into and it would come out sullied with orange jelly, like you were poking inside breasts. 

In her language the fruit is called caco. There is no path between the two words.

They go to a concert which is King Arthur by Handel. When the King dies in the snow she can feel the capitulation of the army of her cells and the oozing inertness of her body. 

After the concert he collects their coats. His phone rings and he stands on the ruffled carpet of the auditorium with his phone cupped to his ear. 

In the car he tells her that his son has a disease and he will fly back to his country tomorrow. The disease is in its early stages and curable. He says he will stay there as long as it takes the boy to fight this malady. 

How she misses him already. It's like a tourniquet applied to thrusts of blood. 

Catherine McNamara grew up in Sydney, ran away to Paris, and ended up in West Africa running a bar. She studied African and Asian Modern History and was a secretary in pre-war Mogadishu, and has worked as an au pair, graphic designer, photographer, translator and shoe model. Her collection The Cartography of Others is forthcoming with Unbound UK, and her book Pelt and Other Stories was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Award and semi-finalist in the Hudson Prize. Catherine's short stories and flash fiction have been Pushcart-nominated, shortlisted and published in the U.K., Europe, U.S.A. and Australia. She lives in northern Italy and has impressive collections of West African art and Italian heels. 

MY CREATIVE PROCESS

Can you tell us a little about the origins of these flash fictions and why you wrote them?
'A Woman Told Me This - Five Pieces' is a selection from a larger work of flash fiction, dealing shamelessly with the fallout from complicated love - the way it slides within the bodily organs and makes itself felt, the way love can last a lifetime, bearing flaws and agony but still one of the deepest feelings our bodies will know. It was inspired by By Grand Central Central I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart, and Ariel by Sylvia Plath.

Why do you write?
As a quiet child I read copiously, and dreamed of writing short stories and novels. I started early with corny, illustrated texts. After a family tragedy involving my young cousin I found solace in reading, and felt closer to writers than to living humans for many years, revelling in this evasion. Later, I read translations of the Russians and the French in original language. It became an obsession that chased me to Paris when I was twenty-one, where I finally stepped outside into the vivid world with all its risks and pleasures. Living above a sweatshop in the then-drug-ridden-but-now-chic 11th arrondisement, I began to write.
As a young woman, I married an Italian economist and moved to East Africa. There I quickly learned that what I wished to write about was home-brewed and not yet enriched by true experience. I left off with writing and went back to work, a pattern that would continue throughout my twelve years in Africa, where I moved between the world of isolated creation and back to the world of employment or child-rearing - ever guilty in either sphere that I was neglecting the other. But these non-writing phases - embassy secretary in Mogadishu, translator from Italian to English, co-manager of a bar and art gallery in Accra - charged the short stories I had begun publishing in literary reviews, providing characters and contrasts and blueprints that triggered my imagination and fuelled my words. I travelled extensively in East and West Africa, lived hard and my personal trials were many. I learned to listen and observe and step outside of myself, not only to make myself a better writer, but for the joy of being human, and my enduring love of story-telling.
I continue to write because I enjoy the act of creation, the collusion of experience, observation and invention. The themes that inspire me most include the impact of historical injustice upon contemporary life and migration, the human experience of cultural displacement and adaptation - these are the areas where I attempt to make a meaningful and heartening contribution.

Who introduced you to literature? Were you born into a family of writers or artists?
My mother was a pianist and music teacher so I studied classical piano throughout my childhood. But my father raced speedboats and listened to Stevie Wonder and Janis Joplin. So I grew up on Bach, Mozart, Lizst, Wonder and Joplin. But I was a shy, brainy kid who read a lot and very quickly aspired to write.
The books and poetry I studied at high school became companions for life. I was thrilled by language. John Donne, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, D.H. Lawrence, Patrick White, Joseph Conrad, Simone de Beauvoir were my core interests and I devoured their works. However, at university, I studied French and Modern African and Asian History - not wishing to have my love of literature conditioned by study.
I received a copy of my first published short story when I was a new mother with a baby in a basket on the floor, living in Mogadishu. Throughout those years in Africa I began to write and submit work, although feedback and interaction were rare. The solitude was challenging, but this was when I developed my craft, made many of my beginners' mistakes, and felt my way blindly ahead, all the while waiting - this was pre-internet - for the diplomatic pouch to deliver my latest rejection letters.
When I returned to Europe after almost a decade in Ghana I settled in northeastern Italy. Again I found myself isolated by language, although this linguistic island in truth allows one to work and explore ideas with tranquility, while the knowledge of another tongue (in my case Italian and French) also provides another plane of thought. Gradually, I built up my editing and submission skills, published further, and began to go to conferences and festivals when I could. In London I participated in masterclasses with authors I admired, and when my first books came out I learned to read and discuss my work in public. I consider myself a self-taught, grassroots writer who is still learning her craft.

Your writing is very visual. What other art forms and disciplines interest you?
I am also interested in music and photography, and find I often have characters who are involved in these worlds. When younger, I was torn between the image and the word, and to date there is a strong visual component in my work. The riches of music and performance are often present also, and the vicisstudes of the artist's life.
In our household we often discuss the merits of each art form - my daughter is a soprano - and while literature is where I have experience in expressing myself, I have great admiration for singers and classical musicians, who live their art through performance. It seems to capture the present in a vital, resounding way.
My dream is to see one of my stories produced as a film and I am currently working towards this.

Can you tell us about your film collaboration and some of your current projects?
My short story collection The Cartography of Others is coming out with Unbound UK in 2018. The stories speak of the geography of the mind and the migration of the heart, and are set from Hong Kong to Bamako, from Sydney to Paris, from London to Accra. Several of the stories have been shortlisted in competitions, with one Pushcart nomination. Hilary Mantel wrote 'stongly atmospheric from the first sentence' of my story 'The Wild Beasts of the Earth Will Adore Him'.
I have also completed a flash fiction collection which is ready for submission, and had two stories in this year's Wigleaf Top 50. I am currently working on a novella.
I am collaborating with a film producer to adapt my short story "Three Days in Hong Kong" as a short film.
Short stories remain my passion and I continue to write these with joy and trepidation.

The Choreographer

The Choreographer

At last, he understood that all his life had been choreography for his funeral. He came to this not through therapy, but during a walk in the woods on his friend Bernstein’s sheep farm in southern Oregon.

It was January, he’d been invited to spend the week, and early Monday before the others were up he went walking in the cold, the maples still holding brilliant leaves on their lowest branches, his boots crunching ice along the path. He stopped at the pond, broke off a pane of ice from its surface, held it up, saw his own crazed reflection there, an abstraction he was proud to appreciate, and he wanted to tell Bernstein about it, Bernstein a painter, tell him about the fascinating distortion, the outline of the nose limning a raised ridge in the ice, the chin line carved along the edge—he wanted his friend to know that he understood abstraction. And when he came back into the house, went into his paneled room overlooking the sheep pen, took off his jacket and gloves and rehearsed his quick speech about the glassy ice, he knew then, in the quiet of the house, that the entire speech was meant to plant in Bernstein’s head the possibility, the suggestion, of his painter friend rising at his funeral and saying, “I just want to say that he understood abstraction.”

He sat on the bed, and in a moment less of honesty than of a long life’s filtration, saw that almost everything he had said or done in his life after, say, age thirty, had been funeral choreography.

For decades now, he admitted, he’d pictured the exact room of his memorial: warm yellow light, metal chairs, a bank of windows revealing a mature garden, wine and hors d’oeuvres on a table at the rear, a crowd larger than the capacity of the place. A winter afternoon—perhaps not unlike what today’s afternoon will be, he thought.

How familiar he was with that place. It had been his, detail after detail added, for thirty years now—was always there when he spoke, didn’t speak, acted, didn’t act.

When he was a lover, he was a lover in order that the beautiful woman he was caressing might, at that memorial, stand—only at the end, mind you—and in a soft voice say I just wanted to mention that he was a wonderful lover, and then ten women, emboldened, would stand and in a quickly accelerating crescendo say He certainly was, and it would be a moment of great humor, memorable.

When he took time to speak with the postman who brought his mail and he asked after the postman’s kids, it was in hope, really, that the postman would rise that same day and say, He always asked about my family, always remembered my kids’ names.

When he was a teacher, he taught not so much to share knowledge but to assemble a legion of potential memorial-goers, each of them standing to say He taught me so much, and He was so important to me formatively, and The world will never be the same . . .

And so it went: when he visited the sick, helped a neighbor change a transmission, bought season tickets to the symphony, studied the Ramayana, traveled to difficult places—all was toward memorial accolade: He brought tenderness to everything he did. He’d give you the shirt off his back. He was an underground scholar. He knew more about John Cage than most musicians I know. He could name the streets of Nairobi in his sleep, and of course, his friend Bernstein’s abstraction comment, and his good wife positioned at the side of the room surrounded north, south, east, west by his four kids, all of them laughing and weeping.

He couldn’t know, though, on this clear winter day in southern Oregon, that his memorial would be nothing like that.

His wife would have arranged a simple service in the Presbyterian Church, word of his death would not have gone out widely—one of his sons having missed the deadline for the obituary—and there was a storm: brutal rain, dangerous driving. Family and extended family would come, but Bernstein would be in Hawaii, the postman long dead, students spread around the globe, most of them hearing of his death only months later, and no lovers: not one. Why would they have heard? A neighbor would rise to say He helped me change my transmission, and I still have the scars to prove it, but the little joke would have gone over badly, sounding strangely bitter.

But for this Monday morning, he was at peace with himself, the confidence of a choreographer just before opening night, certain that his dancers know their moves, that the stage is clean, the music cued, the lights just right, the understudies stretching in the wings.

From The Choreographer, Sixteen Rivers Press (San Francisco), 2013

Gerald Fleming is the author of The Choreographer (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2013), Night of Pure Breathing (Hanging Loose Press, 2011), and Swimmer Climbing onto Shore (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2005). He lives in California.

The Wild Beasts of the Earth Will Adore Him

The Wild Beasts of the Earth Will Adore Him

 

“I was the subject of an experiment in love. I lived my life
under her gaze, undergoing certain trials for her so that she
would not have to undergo them for herself. But, how are our certainties
 forged, except by the sweat and tears of other people?” 
–HILARY MANTEL
An Experiment in Love

Shortlisted for the Hilary Mantel/Kingston University Short Story Competition
Photo by Catherine McNamara

 

My new colleagues were backstabbing and merciless and came through inching, dust-choked traffic from the hinterlands to work. In turn, they wasted no time in slamming each other over milky Liptons in plastic mugs or warm Guinness bottles passed across the desk. Very quickly the office mystery was established as Meredith. Meredith was filmy white, coiled blonde hair dropping down her back and the way she moved was staunch. I was informed that Meredith slept with her dogs.

The dimensions of the Accra agency were tighter than the huge Jo’burg office where I’d been stationed before but there was just as much piss-taking with the accounts. Everyone else was tar-black except the caramel secretary. I was looked at warily (mixed-race, shaven head, Eraserhead T-shirt) for good reason amongst their yellowing business shirts, and they didn’t ease up until Kwame Djoleto made a smouldering crack and they could see I wasn’t a jerk.

More than once Meredith glided from the staff room with a floral mug wearing a pleated apricot skirt, a shade of Sunday bazaar. Someone blurted that the husband had left her for a Nigerian hooker three years ago and she was frozen here, the sickly salary better than any amputated return to her confectioned home town. Kwame said the hooker had been squealing on top and Meredith had burst in with a gun from the kitchen, the dogs howling and the husband in grovelling tears.

This brought forth light, worn-through sniggers.

The company had given me a bungalow off a road of better streets and I was told that Meredith was a neighbour. She’d had to scale down when the husband’s salary moved away. I didn’t envisage us having awkward drinks on the porch but Meredith, one afternoon while handing in a budget estimate, said it was a quiet part of town. Ingrained along her forehead and the grooves either side of her mouth, were fresh and deepening lines of hardiness. I asked what breed were her dogs.

‘Labradors. Black Labradors. They suffer the heat.’

Never once in my life had I owned a dog, wished for a dog, even studied a dog. I find them breathy.

In the mornings a group of local soldiers jogged along the street in front of my place. This area of town backed onto the sprawling military camp with its lurching fences and colonial shacks. The soldiers carried guns across their bodies and shouted marines’ chants as they jogged to the end of the street. Every morning I watched their caps and olive shirts through the blinds. Some time afterwards, just before the driver swung around the corner to take me to work, Meredith would engineer two glossy black shapes down the empty street. Their spines snaked along, their thick tails levered and whacked around, their mouths were large, pink, wet.

*

At the nucleus of my clan of colleagues I soon realised it was not Kwame Djoleto, who made a lot of noise and was wide and pungent, but a thin man named Solomon who did little more than retrieve the post. Solomon sat straight-backed on his seat. He walked with a polio limp. A son of Solomon’s had died recently and the funeral notice was still on the staff board, showing a bright boy with buck teeth. Though I was the boss I realised that it was Solomon who commanded the team’s fluctuations and temperament. He looked congenial, long-suffering.

All hands came on deck any time there was a photo shoot as these were few and far between, dogged by many interpretations of the theme at hand. Take cooking oil. Weeks were spent on divergent storyboards, meetings were left in disgust. Brainstorming in the small overheated conference room took on the dimensions of frank warfare as each colleague within the creative department (and several others without) unfolded his or her heartfelt story of Frylove. Kwame Djoleto wanted a romantic scene: husband comes home, embraces wife from behind while she is cooking. There was a valid debate about the trappings of the kitchen, about whether the wife should wear Western dress; whether the husband should be fat or slim. How dark their skins should be. I noticed Meredith paying attention in a freefall way. Was she thinking about her dogs? When a handful of ideas had been cobbled together Solomon was consulted and the fine-boned man mentioned his preferences while twisting a leaky pen. Kwame’s scene, for example, didn’t involve any offspring. The grasp of the husband could be perceived as sexual (guffaws). Western dress was better, though the food should be rigorously local. As Kwame attempted baldly to defend his idea I stopped scribbling and saw that Meredith’s eyes like a watershed were upon me. But I was just in the way of her blinding thoughts. It was not the dogs she was thinking about.

Discussion reignited in a bullying way when Kwame insisted upon the wife’s fair tones and narrow waist. I glimpsed Meredith roll her eyes.

The two black Labradors were also walked in the evening. That was when I sat on the porch with a neat gin. Like Meredith, my spouse had taken off. But deservedly. I hadn’t had an email since. I watched Meredith’s arid walk behind the two animals with their slack leather leads. The dogs progressed slowly, heat-stricken in the musk air, heads bobbing, tongues gluey. Meredith filled out a tracksuit and wore a peaked cap.

I was still sitting there in the dark eating peanuts when Kwame Djoleto and two of the others made the visit they had been promising, wearing tight open shirts. Kwame was carrying a further bottle of gin. Their faces were beaded and the smallest man wiped his temples with a handkerchief. Kwame looked up at the rusted fan blades suspended from the teak-cladded ceiling and said that Solomon knew a good electrician. The fluorescent light made my skin look green, while they were a trio of black faces with violet flints. I brought out extra glasses.

Kwame drove us up through the suburbs to a nightclub called the Red Onion. I held onto a bottle of beer as women became wavy before me. Cocks were crowing when with ears ringing we came outside into the damp. I wondered whether Meredith in the arms of her Labradors was awake.

*

Solomon was absent and the office was in disarray. It was not known whether it was something connected to the son’s recent funeral, or whether fresh problems had arisen in his household. No one knew where Solomon lived. No one knew which trotro he caught to work. We went ahead with the Frylove photo shoot. The kitchen of the house next door served as a set. Lights on stands were placed apart and Meredith positioned fans. But there was an uncertainty, a negligence, in the air. Everyone looked lethargic. Kwame snapped at the Frylove models under the hot lights. The woman who was the ‘wife’ snapped back at him and folded her thin arms, while the ‘husband’ slumped in a kitchen chair and sent text after text. Any sort of orchestration dispersed. Meredith came across with her folder, standing between Kwame and the woman. I couldn’t understand Twi and didn’t know if Meredith in all her years of living here had grasped their tongue. It didn’t seem to be the case. As she led the woman up the hall to the bathroom I heard her say,

‘Now just come this way, Nana. You don’t want to spoil your makeup now.’

The model ‘children’ rolled up bits of paper and flicked them about the room.

As boss, I knew I had to call Kwame into line and re-establish the dynamic of the day. Kwame scowled at me in anticipation, his head swinging on his considerable neck as he looked around for Solomon amongst the helpers one last time. The maps under his armpits clung to his skin. He went over to the cooking pot and stirred the cold brown stew. He checked the yellow Frylove bottle was in sharp light. He told the unruly girl and boy to behave themselves before he took them outside to beat them. After Jo’burg’s tetchy egos and gauzy models it was hard not to laugh.

Meredith brought the ‘wife’ back from the bathroom. They had agreed upon a tawny girl, far too young to have produced the ten and twelve-year-old at the table. Meredith positioned her over the pot, showing the lumpy ‘husband’ how to clasp her. Kwame nodded. Someone had handed him a plastic mug of milky tea. I waved away mine and watched the white woman giving a honey-I’m-home embrace to the ticklish Frylove ‘wife’.

The end of the day produced two feasible shots we uploaded onto the computer. ‘The Hug’ and ‘At the Table’, an alternative which showed the mother placing a platter of jollof rice and chicken on the printed tablecloth, flanked by husband and children. Given ‘The Hug’ was devoid of any sort of sexual or marketing charge, I preferred the rigid table shot with its acidic yellows and greens, its gasping comedian faces. There was an irresistible lyricism at the base of its poor logic and composition.

Kwame wasn’t happy with either and roamed the set like a lost dog. Two weeks later the table shot plus titles was on billboards about the town.

Solomon refused to surface over the next few days and voices trailed along the corridors. Where did he come from? Was it Teshie? Did he catch a bus from Nungua? A chair was kept for him at the next round of meetings, where Kwame clashed severely with a colleague called Patrice. It was a hair straightening product, an ongoing campaign. Patrice’s first ideas were overturned and sliced in the belly, then given a final pounding on the head. I noticed Meredith looked distracted, someone or something had pulled the plug on her concentration. The conference room was small and full of bad breath.

I watched Meredith walk the dogs in the evening and almost felt like calling out to her from my porch. One of the dogs seemed to lag a little, and directly outside my scrappy hedge she crouched to the road and massaged the dog’s ears while the big dog licked her face. I recoiled. The other dog turned around limply.

*

A staff member who travelled a long way into town along the coast had found a funeral notice on the trotro. It was Solomon’s. Employees gathered in the office foyer and the poorly printed sheet was passed around. Kwame pushed into my office. Clutched in his hands was the streaky photograph showing Solomon’s face tilted upward, the mouth open and his front teeth tugged slightly out of line. It was now clear he was the father of the bright boy with buck teeth. Kwame cast down the sheet of paper, taking out a handkerchief to wipe his face. His trousers had an oil stain on the thigh and I saw he had small, clutched ears that wanted to hear very little.

Meredith entered the office and examined the page with a depleted expression. Outside a man burst into tears while a woman named Comfort led a procession into the conference room where murmuring and sobbing began. Kwame followed his colleagues and I soon heard his voice lifting above in a reverent, stilted backwash. Meredith and I stood staring at each other. I felt as though I were bagged inside her head and looking at myself. I saw my jaw clench and lines buckling my forehead.

Meredith flushed and we followed the others into the room.

What I in no way expected was to see a hired trotro parked outside the office a few days later and a coffin being unloaded under Kwame’s sweaty direction, then slipped through the narrow front doors. The driver squatted by a roadside tree in ragged shorts as staff members filed into the building after the swaying cargo.

Inside the conference room the tables were jammed together and I heard shoes scuffing and the squeaking of wood. I stood transfixed in the doorway to my office, fingers hooked in the belt of my jeans. Meredith walked grimly to the staff room, came back with a floral mug of tea. I heard the box jimmied open and there was a chasm of silence, a collective exhalation mixing with the aura of Solomon’s embalmed body. A questioning, chemical smell arose. My stomach heaved. I turned away to my desk and switched on the monstrous air conditioner plugged into the wall. Then Kwame was at my back looking like a man plummeting, his fists empty and his face stripped. The whites of his eyes had red hairline cracks.

Solomon’s face was puffy, like he was in a process of chewing a big mouthful of food. His skin looked finer, the lines on his forehead fleeting. The stretch of skin between upper lip and nostrils was more rounded than it had been when he had sat here twisting the leaky pen. He wore reading glasses, a beige suit, a bow-tie, a late-70s Elvis shirt with ruffles. A part of my brain was laughing, scavenging this experience, while another examined the brown shoes like boats on his feet, the crooked tennis socks, and wanted to buckle over. The body already looked flattened and false, a rasping snakeskin with all moisture erased though there was oil or shea butter through his hair. I stood in the line around the tables as each staff member waited for a moment with the odourless corpse. When my turn came I spoke softly, a few words. But as I walked away I felt a powerful excavation in my body. I wanted to shit, or vomit, writhe on the ground, pluck my own eyes from my head. I wanted rapture before it would come to me. At the door I turned back to the coffin with a pit in my chest, currents shunting in the soft ellipsis of my brain, each organ inside of me vaporous. I sat on the loo for a good ten minutes then poured gin for everybody.

Solomon’s funeral notice joined that of his bright young son on the staff notice board and they became a pair of comrade saints. Staff members glanced at Solomon’s easygoing photograph as they passed and Kwame, hands on hips in conversation, looked up to his quiet colleague as though for confirmation or advice. Kwame’s aggression moved someplace else and Patrice’s ideas for the hair straightening campaign were revived.

*

There was excellent dope to be had in this country. After a string of demolishing hangovers I organised a good supply of undoctored weed and smoked every evening. Kwame disapproved. He refused even the slightest puff, folding his arms like an old woman and curiously watching me filling a skin. Tonight he sat on the porch and stared at me lighting up, his forearms on his thighs and his large hands pummelled together. He eased back into the cushions to avoid the cloud I exhaled. He had no companions this evening. His shirt burst apart in scallops and dark lozenges of his belly showed through. His chest was hairless and his neck had thick rings of flesh. His eyes travelled over the rusty fan I had failed to have fixed, its tilted blades on their axis and the knot of wires escaping the dislodged plastic cup. I knew he was kicking himself for not finding out in which Tudu slum Solomon’s electrician lived before Solomon had died.

I inhaled again, beginning to feel the easy fissuring, the wandering explosions. I dropped my head back on the thick bamboo of the chair. Kwame shifted and I told him there were more beers in the fridge. He came outside, uncapping the bottle tops in some mysterious local way, his movement wobbling the light given off by three candles on a saucer. Tonight there was no power. The neighbourhood lay black and dense beyond us. I inhaled a third time and the memory of love in my bowels, my brain rank with it, sprang forth inexplicably. My heart rate surged and I felt my body veering. I looked down at my belly and thighs, my arms chucked on the varnished bamboo armrests.

Kwame stared into the darkness. In Solomon’s absence the office staff clustered around him and I knew he felt wrought. I knew Kwame came to sit here in silence. Perhaps he had begun to understand his own deference to the smaller man, and the serenity of listeners when Solomon had whispered his words. Kwame saw me studying him and he twisted around to point out a bright beacon of electricity up the road through the trees. A generator rattered loudly. It was where Meredith resided, he said.

Sniggering, I asked him who the hell had started the rumour about her sleeping with the dogs, whether it was some sort of fixation or score-settling or a sick way of wanting the broad blonde woman.

‘I did,’ said Kwame.

His teeth appeared in the darkness and we both laughed loudly, crazily, until our laughs tailed off. I did not ask him why. I now felt the full throttle of the overloaded spliff and wanted to roll downward, brakeless, curl in a ball, think of Solomon on his flight meeting the buck-toothed boy on a corner somewhere in a place as merciless and rundown as this.

*

Meredith came to me with a problem. She said that Patrice’s ideas for the hair straightening campaign had been plagiarised. She pulled out an African-American magazine and I could see why Patrice’s lavish storyboard had initially been slaughtered by Kwame. It was damned good. A light twinkled on above Patrice’s head.

I convened a meeting in the conference room. I decided to exclude Meredith and not reveal my source. I sat there, Kwame and Patrice before me nursing milky tea, both bristling slightly. I saw that their newfound collaboration had thin and tangled roots.

I swung around the magazine. Kwame glowered. Patrice’s eyes popped out. Kwame instantly began a tirade in local language which I allowed him to terminate. He apologised to me. But not to Patrice who sat glumly in the chair, his first gainful moments now stamped in the dust. He confessed he had found the magazine at his sister’s house, she was just back from Atlanta.

Kwame shook his pointed finger in Patrice’s face and both men shouted. I wondered whether I should have told Meredith to pipe down and take her magazine home with her. But the company was a conglomerate, our work traversed borders; lawyers might have been flown out. I tapped my pen on the desk and neither of the men heeded me. I had a flash of the most galvanising moments of my previous life. The sense of being a faceless, fleshless absentee in the room.

‘Kwame,’ I said.

Kwame pushed back his chair and stood. He suggested I sack Patrice on the spot.

‘Otherwise I will be leaving here this noon,’ Kwame said.

Here I longed for Solomon’s counsel. I knew enough of Kwame’s volatility not to want to agitate him further. I noticed the small deaf ears were like creased flowers, the deepening central folds bearing no stamen. I saw that nothing would stop him from travelling this tangent to its absurd end.

‘You will choose. One of us will go.’ Kwame walked over to the frosted windows with his hands on hips. Patrice stared at the desk. I saw he’d put a lot of effort into his hair cut. He was an earnest young man, an asset. I looked at his crinkled, embarrassed face and remembered when a priest had placed his fingers on my forehead at school. My prime thought had been to knee him in the groin. Until a current had passed through the intersection of our skins. Heat. Transmission. An everlasting imprint.

I heard Meredith pass outside in her squeaky wedges.

‘Patrice, you will leave us,’ I said. ‘You realise this is a very serious error in judgement. It’s unacceptable, as Kwame has pointed out.’

Kwame nodded at the window without looking satisfied or easing his stance.

I left the room. Meredith tagged after me in the hall and I turned around and looked at her face. It was downy, it had been licked by dogs. I thanked her for her astuteness and her lips pursed.

I closed my office door and made a strong cup of instant coffee from a tin of Nestlé and the kettle atop a filing cabinet. I sat there downing the hot, dirty drink. I turned on my computer and began an email to my estranged wife.

*

The following day a shabbily-dressed woman stood in the hall and was ignored by everybody. Finally Kwame swung around and demanded to know what she wanted. I had just visited the bathroom for the third time and saw him descend upon her. Her voice was inaudible as Kwame bent over. She wore busted flip-flops that had been wired together and her feet were skirted in dust.

Kwame turned to me and his face was draped in guilt. He took the woman’s fine arm, leading her to the conference room. I saw her hair had been straightened many times and she had lost patches of it. As they walked Kwame’s hand opened on her back.

Before Kwame strode in to inform me I knew what he would say. The woman was Solomon’s sister. She needed money. I felt another cramp shifting through my gut.

‘I cannot believe,’ said Kwame. He sat opposite me at the desk, his head rocking in his hands. ‘That we have forgotten his family. This cannot be.’

I asked what was the common practice here.

‘Gifts of rice,’ he murmured. ‘Gifts of rice.’

I opened the top drawer of the filing cabinet and took out a wad of greasy cash in an elastic band.

‘How much?’

These words seemed to devastate Kwame a great deal.

‘How much is a man’s life worth? And a small lifeless son?’

I stood there waiting. I felt very light-headed.

‘Might it be better to send someone out to buy some bags of rice?’ I said.

Kwame released a mighty humph! ‘Who now shall go out to buy rice? When we are even without Patrice?’

I handed him the wad of cash. The money came from my own pocket. Kwame’s shirt was tight across his back as he crossed the hallway.

Three days later a second woman was standing in the hall. Where the first woman was eroded and unobtrusive, this woman was large and gay, staring up and down at everyone who passed. She wore a bright print and her feet and cheeks were plump and scented. A glittery scarf was tied over her hair. Kwame stopped by her soon after she struggled up the outdoor steps and let the door slam. She announced that she was Solomon’s wife.

I stepped back into my office with the armful of back files Meredith had just retrieved. The dust made me sneeze and the massive splutter travelled down the ratchets of my spine. By now the dysentery had made a wreck of my body and I was living on flat Coke and rice crackers. I saw Kwame march her into the conference room and command a cup of tea. I half-closed the door and sat down. I pushed the files aside and stared at my hands on the table. They were shaking. I wondered if you starved a human body of love or food or kinship – which loss would be the most ruinous? I continued to look at my hands, recalling the lifeless morsels alongside Solomon’s body. I touched my fingertips to my neck and they were cold. I heard Meredith politely bring in two mugs of Liptons and open a can of Ideal milk before the woman’s eyes. Kwame thanked her. He introduced Solomon’s spouse. Other office staff joined the trio in the conference room and I heard laughter. It sounded as though the woman was telling stories. Kwame led an eerie applause that travelled through the building.

I juggled with the idea of making an appearance but felt that Kwame would have called me if my presence were required. I was not informed of the arrangement he came to with the woman, and when I next went to the bathroom Solomon’s spouse was gone. The office was quiet for the next few hours. Kwame and two colleagues had gone to scout for a location. Before lunch I abandoned the dusty files and had the driver take me to the house where I dropped to my bed, head pounding.

I rose in the afternoon. I showered and the water was icy on my skin. I ate some cold rice and opened a tin of local tuna. On the porch the heavy air felt chilly. I wore an old sweater of my wife’s that was laced with her smell. I sat there in the midst of the neighbourhood. Children were crying out; there was an argument at the fruit stall down the road; a shoe shine boy trudging along tapped his wooden box with his brush. I made a cup of hot black tea and sat with its fusty heat beneath my face, making me perspire. I opened my laptop to the email I had begun to my wife a week ago, on the day I had sacked Patrice. I wrote two more sentences before all sense, all emotion, failed me. She had used the word irretrievable, many times.

Meredith appeared at the far end of the street, heading out from her gate with a single dog this time, on its leather lead. I watched her pace down the road. She wore a peaked cap that darkened most of her face, but today she held her head higher. Swinging around, it looked strangely mobile and engaged. The dog’s head was low, close to the road surface, a slinking along more than a walk. The lead slackened between them. When Meredith was level with my house she looked directly into my porch and saw my eyes trained upon her. She stopped. I had the feeling she had been hoping I was there. I waved, motioning to her to open the gate. I lifted out of the chair and moved to the railing as she crossed the small stones. The dog cast glances from side to side, nose roving over the new terrain.

‘Hello, Meredith. Anything I can do?’

Meredith’s erect walk became a stagger and I saw how hard she had been pushing herself originally. Why the fuck had she stayed on here?

‘It’s Bobby McGee,’ she announced, hauling herself closer in the scalding sun. ‘My other dog. I think he’s dead.’

Now a suffering shudder collapsed her shoulders. She removed the peaked cap and brought her hands to her eyes, her pink forehead rippling and bright. The dog folded its black shape on the ground.

Meredith peered up. ‘Would you mind coming to see?’

I closed my computer and trod down the steps. She pulled her cap back over her coiled blonde hair. I felt her eyes comb my chest and realised I was wearing a woman’s sweater. I did not wish to explain. I looked down at the orange laces in her running shoes.

‘This is Janis,’ she said, indicating the Labrador now swaying a thick tail.

I opened the gate for Meredith and the dog, and followed them the short distance down the street. In this direction the houses became slightly larger before the road reached the crooked fences of the military camp. Meredith’s was freshly painted and ringed by leafy coleus plants, with two travellers’ palms crammed between the house and the fence. She unlocked the metal grills over carved front doors.

I followed her down the hall. The house smelt as I would have imagined. Soap and hair products: it was now clear how much Meredith prized the long blonde coils. There were no photographs, just clean surfaces, empty chairs, a shocking emptiness. I wondered if her cheating husband and the Nigerian hooker had lasted longer than three months. It was probable that they had. I thought of young, bright Patrice who had been quashed by Kwame Djoleto, and how Djoleto would soon have the final word on every project in the office. I thought of the last time I had made love with my beautiful wife, how we had lain there erased, the bed sheets blank, the room vacant, our fluids slid away from us into crevices where they would drain away and there would be no embodiment.

Meredith showed me the dead animal lying on her bed. The front paws were crossed, the hind legs a little astray. There was urine on the sheets and the belly seemed swollen. She had left the air conditioning on high so there was no smell. The dog’s eyes were open. Meredith sat on the end of the bed. I stood there looking at the dense black carcass thinking of the weed sitting in a drawer of the wall unit at home, thinking that if I phoned Kwame he would know who the hell to call and what to do with this.

"The Wild Beasts of the Earth Will Adore Him" was first published in What Lies Beneath, Kingston University Press 2015

Catherine McNamara grew up in Sydney, ran away to Paris, and ended up in West Africa running a bar. She studied African and Asian Modern History and was a secretary in pre-war Mogadishu, and has worked as an au pair, graphic designer, photographer, translator and shoe model. Her collection The Cartography of Others is forthcoming with Unbound UK, and her book Pelt and Other Stories was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Award and semi-finalist in the Hudson Prize. Catherine's short stories and flash fiction have been Pushcart-nominated, shortlisted and published in the U.K., Europe, U.S.A. and Australia. She lives in northern Italy and has impressive collections of West African art and Italian heels.

MY CREATIVE PROCESS

Can you tell us a little about the origins of this piece and why you wrote it?
'The Wild Beasts of the Earth Will Adore Him' was directly inspired by my experience in running a small advertising agency in Accra, Ghana, and watching colleagues at work with the larger agencies in town. I wanted to talk about localcharacters, and foreignerscoming to terms with the environment, bringing in all the humour of cultural exchange and the low stream of tragedies somewhat frequent in West Africa. Aligned with that, I wanted to mention love, broken-heartedness. And dogs.

Why do you write?
As a quiet child I read copiously, and dreamed of writing short stories and novels. I started early with corny, illustrated texts. After a family tragedy involving my young cousin I found solace in reading, and felt closer to writers than to living humans for many years, revelling in this evasion. Later, I read translations of the Russians and the Frenchin original language. It became an obsession that chased me to Paris when I was twenty-one, where I finally stepped outside into the vivid world with all its risks and pleasures. Living above a sweatshop in the then-drug-ridden-but-now-chic 11th arrondisement, I began to write.
As a young woman, I married an Italian economist and moved to East Africa. There I quickly learned that what I wished to write about was home-brewed and not yet enriched by true experience. I left off with writing and went back to work, a pattern that would continue throughout my twelve years in Africa, where I moved between the world of isolated creation and back to the world of employment or child-rearing - ever guilty in either sphere that I was neglecting the other. But these non-writing phases - embassy secretary in Mogadishu, translator from Italian to English, co-manager of a bar and art gallery in Accra - charged the short stories I had begun publishing in literary reviews, providing characters and contrasts and blueprints that triggered my imagination and fuelled my words. I travelled extensively in East and West Africa, lived hard and my personal trials were many. I learned to listen and observe and step outside of myself, not only to make myself a better writer, but for the joy of being human, and my enduring love of story-telling.
I continue to write because I enjoy the act of creation, the collusion of experience, observation and invention. The themes that inspire me most include the impact of historical injustice upon contemporary life and migration, the human experience of cultural displacement and adaptation - these are the areas where I attempt to make a meaningful and heartening contribution.

Who introduced you to literature? Were you born into a family of writers or artists?
My mother was a pianist and music teacher so I studied classical piano throughout my childhood. But my father raced speedboats and listened to Stevie Wonder and Janis Joplin. So I grew up on Bach, Mozart, Lizst, Wonder and Joplin. But I was a shy, brainy kid who read a lot and very quickly aspired to write.
The books and poetry I studied at high school became companions for life. I was thrilled by language. John Donne, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, D.H. Lawrence, Patrick White, Joseph Conrad, Simone de Beauvoir were my core interests and I devoured their works. However, at university, I studied French and Modern African and Asian History - not wishing to have my love of literature conditioned by study.
I received a copy of my first published short story when I was a new mother with a baby in a basket on the floor, living in Mogadishu. Throughout those years in Africa I began to write and submit work, although feedback and interaction were rare. The solitude was challenging, but this was when I developed my craft, made many of my beginners' mistakes, and felt my way blindly ahead, all the while waiting - this was pre-internet - for the diplomatic pouch to deliver my latest rejection letters.
When I returned to Europe after almost a decade in Ghana I settled in northeastern Italy. Again I found myself isolated by language, although this linguistic island in truth allows one to work and explore ideas with tranquility, while the knowledge of another tongue (in my case Italian and French) also provides another plane of thought. Gradually, I built up my editing and submission skills, published further, and began to go to conferences and festivals when I could. In London I participated in masterclasses with authors I admired, and when my first books came out I learned to read and discuss my work in public. I consider myself a self-taught, grassroots writer who is still learning her craft.

Your writing is very visual. What other art forms and disciplines interest you?
I am also interested in music and photography, and find I often have characters who are involved in these worlds. When younger, I was torn between the image and the word, and to date there is a strong visual component in my work. The riches of music and performance are often present also, and the vicisstudes of the artist's life.
In our household we often discuss the merits of each art form - my daughter is a soprano - and while literature is where I have experience in expressing myself, I have great admiration for singers and classical musicians, who live their art through performance. It seems to capture the present in a vital, resounding way.
My dream is to see one of my stories produced as a film and I am currently working towards this.

Can you tell us about your film collaboration and some of your current projects?
My short story collection The Cartography of Others is coming out with Unbound UK in 2018. The stories speak of the geography of the mind and the migration of the heart, and are set from Hong Kong to Bamako, from Sydney to Paris, from London to Accra. Several of the stories have been shortlisted in competitions, with one Pushcart nomination. Hilary Mantel wrote 'stongly atmospheric from the first sentence' of my story 'The Wild Beasts of the Earth Will Adore Him'.
I have also completed a flash fiction collection which is ready for submission, and had two stories in this year's Wigleaf Top 50. I am currently working on a novella.
I am collaborating with a film producer to adapt my short story "Three Days in Hong Kong" as a short film.
Short stories remain my passion and I continue to write these with joy and trepidation.

Silkworms, Swathes and the Dead

Silkworms, Swathes and the Dead

 

'Epigraph'

So…

It feels, again, like being a silkworm

Cocooned in a shell built upon its own saliva,

Reflecting the memory-aches,

With one thread hanging out of the shell

Living beyond time and space,

Which might be inferred as a calculation inside the cocoon.

The illusion, that it isn’t dark, inside, could be smudged easily

For darkness always stays in each corner

Wherever there is the name of a god.

(1)

The ‘Roza’ felt betrayed for the first time, in the naïve summer,

When the caramel of your lips was offered, a perquisite.

The religion had died many years ago, in my dry womb,

Before it could see the light of day as an infant,

And, before it could suckle the usual fluid

Of naivety from the nipples of slumber.

In retrospect… I feel, I can do the same again

For that ride to the wonderland. For one kiss.

Feet intersecting, mine placed upon yours,

Souls worshiping the void while standing

In the middle of another void,

With number seventeen at the end of its name.

 

(2)

The smell of the neon light grows stronger,

More and more intense as time transforms…

I could feel the gangrene

Growing in your stomach

Gesticulating omnipotent.

(3)

The blues stay with us

In the saliva of that one kiss

Which remains our first and last

Ride to the wonderland.

Ramsha Ashraf is a Pakistani poet who tries not to let any tradition confine her individuality. She is the author of the poetry collection Enmeshed (Sanjh Publications, 2015).

MY CREATIVE PROCESS
What drew you to this subject matter?

I think the silkworm could be considered, or at least it appears to me, the most potent metaphor for creativity. It provides you a cage of paradox to live in; a sense of liberation yet a Promethean chain keeps you tied to an unknown responsibility. I write without knowing any legitimate reason to why I write... But, I guess, this is why art and literature is considered an apt barometer of mirroring and measuring what is called, and known in a much simpler context as, life.

Can you tell us a little about the origins of "Silkworms, Swathes and the Dead " and why you wrote it?
Well, the Muslim month of Ramadan has been observed all over the world. So, it brings a few sweet-bitter memories spent in the arms of a not-so-religious yet pious lover.

Why do you write?
I guess, I write because I just cannot accept the fact that time is going to erase my voice from the surface. Although, I am fully aware of the futility of my act.

 

At a Late Age

At a Late Age

We sat in the place, asked for a half-jug of white wine; it was day when we sat down, just night when we left, & what we got was this: rain clouds goose-wing grey from the west but not near—this to be the next day’s rain—& as dark fell the lamps in the square came on, jaune, & from a soapstone dome flowed a font whose sound was new to us by night—how had we not heard it? But the best, this: the young, who sat on the rim of that font, black baseball caps, some bent as if to throw dice, some to their long-haired loves, French lips to French lips, all limned black in new night, backlit with lamplight as in an old snapshot, that same light caught now in a bank of glass from a fifth-floor flat, sent back to us—then from nowhere, somewhere, in full sail, a half moon.

Can this be real? you said. Don’t pull back the veil.


Gerald Fleming is the author of One (Hanging Loose Press, 2016), The Choreographer (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2013), Night of Pure Breathing (Hanging Loose Press, 2011), and Swimmer Climbing onto Shore (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2005). He lives in California.

 

Anniversaries / Per molts anys!

Anniversaries / Per molts anys!

If wind asked permission
we might wait and listen
as if night stopped its blue
curtain and wheat bent without scattering
its hope of what happens in the dark,

and happens by accident.
–JOHN FREEMAN
"On Love"


[1] Why this particular stupid, savage method of causing pain, and no other? Why not stick pins into the shoulder of some other part of the body, compress the hands or feet in a vise, or something like that?

English / Spanish version

Every morning, when I wake up under the blanket of the sky, I feel that for me it is our anniversary. Opening the wood shutters to let in the fresh air, I am greeted by the thought of you. Again! Damp rises from the street. Today will be a special day. Greens, sprouts, health foods to celebrate our birthday! I am eating better for you. Oh I hope so! Why not? Today will be a special day.

Waiting for your call. Waiting. As far as human temporality the day is infinite even with the light changing or growing darker. I crawl into bed and out. Take another walk by the river and hear the water tremble and sigh—that night! Night comes but still the same day hangs about: per molts anys! Years that will surely come. It will surely come (it must come!). I will die if it doesn’t.

Waiting for the call that will come and take place of absence and of the knowledge of absence. How I lie! There are ghosts in the village for sure! Se ha dado cuenta: in the year 1313 there were 13 jueus catalans here. Jewish families that is. It is the anniversary of their absence. A fire que frio because of «that» (auctoritate nostra ignis iudicio concremandos). BUT I just cannot take you seriously and in comic sans no less.

What do I think of the language of love? Cliché like a stupid anniversary. Still you could cut me some slack. Your presence or a Hermès Handbag.

Six years ago or six months. The same for me. We shared what happens in the dark, and happens by accident. The next morning you were surprised I'd woke up into desire. Then I marked up a piece of paper and drew a grid. Miss your private messages. I prefer a hard copy. Better to have those little hand-drawn numbers to count in the corners. Feels more real. They say you remember more what you read on paper. But really who cares what they will say!

I wait enveloped in your absence. Am hungry again, a stomach aches. Cross off another day. Burn the paper. Mark up another. Drawn here, a fool that waits. Your fool. I peel back the skin on another ingrown hair. See: red! It hurts to fall and I sprain my ankle. My aunt has an accident and there is blood in her skull. I recall your absence and that pain is real and take refuge in being vulnerable again.

They say that chronology is the backbone of history. But we also need to accept that there are four or five fundamental dates that every good person keeps lodged in their brain, which have played bad tricks on history. Happy anniversaries. Per molts anys! Such dates are indifferent to desire… I say let’s begin again! Love is here and I open the shutters. It’s you, it’s the inquisition

Juliana Nalerio currently resides in Hostalric, Catalunya and at Stanford in the Modern Thought & Literature program. As a transatlantic Ph.D. student she is fascinated by looking, writing, and waxing poetic. She works on race, literature, and critical theory with a historical slant. She has also studied at the Universities of Valladolid and Salamanca in Spain.

 

Aniversarios / Per molts anys!

Traducido del inglés por Natasha Hakimi Zapata

[1] ¿Por qué este particular método estúpido
y salvaje de causar dolor, y no otro? ¿Por qué no
pegar los pasadores en el hombro de alguna otra
parte del cuerpo, comprimir las manos o los pies
en un tornillo de banco, o algo así?

Cada mañana, cuando me despierto bajo la manta del cielo, siento que para mí es nuestro aniversario. Abriendo las persianas de madera para dejar entrar el aire fresco, soy saludada por el pensamiento de ti. ¡Otra vez! La humedad se alza por la calle que frunce el ceño. Hoy será un día especial. ¡Verdes, brotes, alimentos saludables para celebrar nuestro cumpleaños! Estoy comiendo mejor para ti. ¡Oh espero que sí! ¿Por qué no? Hoy será un día especial.

Esperando tu llamada. Esperando. En cuanto a la temporalidad humana, el día es infinito, incluso cuando la luz cambia y se oscurece. Me meto en la cama y me salgo. Tomo otro paseo por el río y escucho el agua temblar y suspirar — ¡esa noche! La noche llega pero el mismo día sigue pendiente: ¡per molts anys! Años que seguramente vendrán. Seguramente vendrá (¡tiene que venir!). Voy a morir si no lo hace.

Esperando la llamada que llegará a tomar el lugar de ausencia y del conocimiento de ausencia. ¡Cómo miento! ¡Hay fantasmas en el pueblo, seguro! Se ha dado cuenta: en el año 1313 había 13 jueus catalans aquí! Es decir, familias judías. Es el aniversario de su ausencia. Un fuego que frío por «eso» (auctoritate nostra ignis iudicio concremandos). PERO simplemente no te puedo tomar en serio, ni siquiera en comic sans.

¿Qué pienso del lenguaje del amor? Cliché como un estúpido aniversario. Aún así me podrías dar un descanso de tanta tortura. Tu presencia o un bolso de Hermes.

Hace seis años o seis meses. Lo mismo para mi. Compartimos lo que ocurre en la oscuridad y sucede por accidente. La mañana siguiente te sorprendió que me despertara en el deseo. Luego marqué un trozo de papel endeble, dibujé una rejilla. Echando de menos tus mensajes privados, prefiero una copia impresa. Es mejor tener esos pequeños números dibujados a mano para contar en las esquinas. Se siente más real. Dicen que recuerdas más lo que lees en el papel. ¡Pero realmente a quién le importa lo que dirán!

Espero envuelto en tu ausencia. Tengo hambre de nuevo, me duele el estómago. Tacho otro día. Quemo el papel. Marco otro. Dibujado aquí, una idiota que espera. Tu idiota. Retiro la piel de otro pelo encarnado. ¡Ve, rojo! Me duele caer y me torcí el tobillo. Mi tía tiene un accidente y hay sangre en su cráneo. Recuerdo tu ausencia y ese dolor es real y me refugio en ser vulnerable otra vez.

Dicen que la cronología es la columna vertebral de la historia. Pero también tenemos que aceptar que hay cuatro o cinco fechas fundamentales que cada buena persona mantiene alojados en su cerebro, que han jugado malos trucos en la historia. Feliz aniversario. Per molts anys! Tales fechas son indiferentes al deseo. ¡Yo digo, empecemos de nuevo! El amor está aquí y abro las persianas. Eres tú, es la inquisición

Natasha Hakimi Zapata is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American Literature at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain, and an assistant editor at Webby award winning site Truthdig. Hakimi also holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Boston University. Most recently, she won a 2016 L.A. Press Club Award for her book review of the poetry collection "I Am the Beggar of the World." Also in 2016, Literal Publishing released bilingual editions of her translations of Alicia Borinsky’s My Husband’s Woman and Liliana Lukin’s Theater of Operations. 

Maria and the Portrait of Ginevra Bentivoglio

Maria and the Portrait of Ginevra Bentivoglio

“A woman must continually watch herself.
She is almost continually accompanied by her own
image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room
or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can
scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping."
–JOHN BERGER
Ways of Seeing

 

Maria stares resolutely at the portrait of Ginevra Bentivoglio; she has been wondering about the lives of the aristocracy since discovering that her great-grandfather was a nobleman in the service of the British empire. He was a colonel in the East India Company’s army and was sent to India to oversee the administration of the Company’s trading regulations. He became a Resident in one of the Indian states and married an Indian woman of high caste. Maria’s great-grandmother died of puerperal fever after giving birth to her sixth daughter; the townsfolk gossiped about the curse of the White Man’s blood. Maria’s relationship with her aristocratic family is laced with tension; any questions of her family history met with either a defensive silence or a click of her grandmother’s fiery tongue. Maria learnt long ago not to rock the family boat.

Ginevra’s skin has a peachy glow; her cheeks are accentuated with a muted rose tone blusher. Maria is mesmerised by Ginevra’s immaculate creamy complexion, she has skin so fair that its almost translucent; Maria’s is three shades darker by comparison, a result of the tropical sun and her Indian father whom she never met. Yet, her grandmother insists that they are of British stock. The mystery of grandmother’s obsession with skin tones never ceases to amuse Maria; her grandmother who has an olive complexion was always trying to lighten it by washing herself in lemon juice. How many shades of brown can there really be? Claudine, Maria’s mother, is obsessed with Vitamin D much to her mother’s vexing. Claudine who has dark green eyes with a hint of blue is constantly trying to make her skin a shade tanner. Maria stays out of the UV rays because she knows that the sun can cause aging.

Maria notes that Ginevra’s chin shows some signs of aging; Ginevra would be about 38 years old; maybe even 40. Maria is a facial therapist, she knows faces. It’s her job to advice women on the conditions of their skins and how to combat signs of aging through regular facial treatments and products made by skin labs in Europe. Her clients are mostly wealthy women - old money - as this strata of society is called in Delhi who are preoccupied with staying young and fair-skinned.

There is a slight sagging of the chin just below the jaw line but the artist has painted Ginevra in a good light. There are no visible wrinkles around her left eye; an opening, a window perhaps, shows the city below; Ginevra is looking out, her gaze fixed at a point not visible to Maria. Ginevra’s eyes are set deep and framed by a faint brow which has been pruned according to the beauty requirements of Ginevra’s time. There is a stoic resignation in her thin lips which belie any emotion. Maria can’t tell if this aristocrat is happy or sad; her face gives away nothing. Maria, by contrast, wears her heart on her sleeves.

“This child has the mannerisms of a peasant,” grandmother’s voice penetrates the silence of the room where Ginevra’s portrait hangs. Grandmother is always present in the grey mass of Maria’s subconscious.

It intrigues Maria that aristocrats extol certain ways of behaving. Grandmama - with an inflection on the last syllable ‘ma’ - as her grandmother preferred to be called, used to say that princesses would never behave this way if Maria were to slip out of line during their routine Sunday lunches at her grandparents'. Claudine simply chewed her meal in silence and glugged down her wine. It’s bad form to drink so heavily and noisily, Claudine knows, but she is past caring about how her mother feels. The wine is the only liquid that would calm her nerves when chai wasn't available. Claudine doesn't stop her mother from chastising Maria; there is no ammunition powerful enough to combat an angry dragon. The hurt of being a kutcha butcha has led to years of unresolved rage and Claudine can only shield her daughter so much as she grapples about how she can save herself. Her defiance in keeping the bastard child of a summer fling with an Indian intern at the bank resulted in a wave of unmitigated rage in her mother. Claudine’s English father remained determined that her rebellion was to spite him for insisting on remaining in India when many of Claudine’s cousins had left for Canada or England. Robert FitzWilliams was born in India to English expatriates and India was where he wanted to remain. Little did he know, it was really Claudine’s insistence on brining an Indian child into this world that was the reason for keeping Maria. She would bring Maria up Indian and Feminist.

The sudden discovery of blue blood in her family connected the missing dot for Maria. It explains why grandmama insisted so incessantly on her keeping out of the sun and why she should refrain from being too dark-skinned. This discovery led Maria to researching her family roots, of probing into a racial category of people known previously as the Eurasians before finally being called Anglo-Indians.

Since then she is enveloped by a sense of calm; Maria also knows now why her mother insists on a bohemian existence in the city where she teaches yoga and meditation. Yoga helps in focusing the mind and meditation helps in keeping the mind still; both are ancient practices that predate Hinduism and Buddhism; importantly, both are practices that Claudine chose to mark her identity as Indian.

As for Maria, she has never doubted her Indian identity. She is resolute about who she is and remains so even after discovering that she has blue blood.

Ercole de’ Roberti (c. 1451 - 1496) was an important painter in the Early Renaissance. He was one of the painters of the School of Ferrara. Ferrara was ruled by the Este family who was well known for being patrons of the arts. Ercole de’ Roberti rose to being a court painter for the Este family.

The art historian Giorgio Vasari documented de’ Roberti’s life and work in his famous book which is still used today by scholars of the Renaissance to understand artists from that period. Vasari writes that de’ Roberti was a bon vivant. De’ Roberti died young from his excesses; his paintings are few and many of his works have been destroyed. Those that survive show his skills and talent.

This portrait of Ginevra Bentivoglio has a partner: The portrait of Giovanni II Bentivoglio, Ginevra’s husband, who was known for being tyrant. The two portraits can be found at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Portraits were symbols of status during the Renaissance. Only the wealthy and powerful had the means to commission artists to paint them in their true likeness. Portraits were also documents of fashion and style; Renaissance scholars are able to understand how the wealthy families in Italy dressed and looked by studying their portraits. De’ Roberti painted Ginevra Bentivoglio so meticulously that her pearls and gems seem real. I like this painting for its realistic reflection of Ginevra’s dress and head dress. I see lines and shapes in her profile and bust which indicate de’ Roberti’s skills as a draughtsman.

Apart from portraits, de’ Roberti also painted diptychs and icons. The National Gallery in London exhibits ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds’ and ‘The Dead Christ’. The two portraits form ‘The Este Diptych’ and were bound together in purple silk velvet. They belonged to Eleonora of Aragon, Duchess of Ferrara who was also the consort of Ercole I d’Este. She would have used the portraits as an aid to meditation and prayer.

Eva Wong Nava lives between two worlds.  She combines her love for art with writing personal reviews and anecdotes; she sometimes turns these anecdotes into fiction.  She reads copiously and writes voraciously, flash fiction being her preferred genre.  Her flash fiction is published and forthcoming in various places, including Jellyfish Review, Peacock Journal, and Flash Fiction Magazine.  Her art writings have appeared in several independent arts magazines.  

She holds a degree in English Literature and Language; a Post-Graduate Teaching Certificate and has a qualification in Art Writing.  A MA in Art History is on the way. Meanwhile, she teaches children and adults how they can use writing for communication and play. 

Eva is also the founder of CarpeArte Journal, an online space for fiction, essays and ramblings of the art sort.  She is interested in the intersection between art and words and the stories that meander within us when we look at visual art. You can find her stories here. 

Is she really a woman?

Is she really a woman?

Is she really a woman or a rock face?

On the first floor of the museum, hidden in the darkness that surrounds windows on sunny days, is a small canvas. She could either be a quartz cliff or a draped, half-naked woman with nothing in her eyes. The canvas makes a rock stack of her – the Old Woman of Hoy maybe, further out at sea, surrounded by turbulent water to the point of turning water to wine and honey at night. Brushstrokes solidify her.

Like all small canvases, she draws you nearer. Smell the hydrangea heads and roses from the garden, chosen for perfume more than lifespan. Linger there. She is taller than man, she is taller than sea. Her neck is Leda’s Swan. And the closer you get, the deeper her dark becomes, the more holds you can identify in her drapes and in the shapes of her breasts, to make your way up with rope, slings and the right cams, some skill, from toe to head. Some crack climbing up the drape-like section to her crotch, a small roof at her waist and an easy climb from nipple to collarbone on an inward incline. She would not move.

In the room where she’s displayed, George Sand tolerated Chopin’s whining and his telling and re-telling of his near-death story by wild doctors in Majorca.

‘Three doctors visited me, the first said I was dead; the second said I was dying; and the third said I was about to die,’ he said.

‘Maybe we are always all three,’ she said.

 

But on the ripped silk of this exhibition room walls, a plaque reads that here is Margaret holding her dead child. Not rock. Not canvas. Margaret who is holding her dead child. Like my own grandmother, Marged, who gave birth to a dead boy; its blood, that baby’s, the wrong colour, blue, all blue instead of red; a biological mistake. Marged, breasts exposed and ready to suckle, eyes matt and fixed on something we don’t see or isn’t there. So, in this painting of a stranger, my grandmother lives and her dead child lives and with them Sand and Chopin who rattled about and argued in this bedroom, and me in the same art-safe light, bending over to understand.

I look again at a dead baby, rock-climbing on cotton: what I didn’t want to see. Its hip against its mother’s hip, right foot ready to swing for a foothold, right arm reaching for a crevice. It does its damndest to nuzzle nose-first through her bellybutton, back to the womb.

And the sea of wine and honey is not that at all but men coming into shape. Two men look up from what was before the sea, one unable to raise his eyes and burying his head, the other with eyes as gold as the gilt-frame, sets his gaze at nothing but the sorrows of earth in a blanket at Marguerite’s bellybutton.

1 At a party hosted by Marie d’Agoult, Chopin met the French author George Sand. She repelled Chopin – ‘what an unattractive person la Sand is. Is she really a woman?’

Siân Melangell Dafydd is an author, poet and translator. Her first published novel, Y Trydydd Peth (The Third Thing; Gomer, 2009) won her the coveted 2009 National Eisteddfod Literature Medal. She writes in both Welsh and English and often collaborates with artists of other disciplines (dancer Sioned Huws’ Aomori Project; the book Ancestral Houses: the Lost Mansions of Wales/Tai Mawr a Mieri: Plastai Coll Cymru with poet Damian Walford Davies and artist Paul White [Gomer 2012]). She was the co-editor of the literary review Taliesin and Y Neuadd online literary magazine for six years. Her second Welsh language novel and a collection of hybrid literature, Spitting Distance are forthcoming. She works with authors and poets internationally to translate literature between minority languages and is undertaking research in yoga and writing as parallel practices. Check out her yoga and creative writing workshops and retreats all over Europe. She works as a lecturer in Creative Writing at the American University of Paris, France and course leader of the MRes in Transnational Writing at Bath Spa University, England.

A Search

A Search

"We know the truth of life, which is that everything
comes and goes; everything is conditional. So how do you
make a joyful, productive life in the face of that knowledge?"
–GEORGE SAUNDERS


I sometimes look back at my life and wonder, how did I end up here? I have been fortunate enough to study the things that I wanted to, without thinking too much of where it might lead me. I have followed my instincts and chosen paths that called me. At times, however, these choices have seemed to be contradictory, mutually exclusive even.

In search of meaning, I decided to study theology at the University of Helsinki. I felt the call of the sacred, of God, if you like. Nothing else seemed important. Or at least as important. After a few years, I decided to apply to a music school - almost as if I was giving music one last chance before I let it go. Music had followed me my whole life and I didn’t quite know how to stop it. But neither did I know how to find a meaningful place for it in my life. And just to confuse matters further, I was accepted. I had to start the long process of painting a picture of myself where both of these sides coexisted.

Of course, we all know that we are much more than what we do, but to me both fields seemed to demand my whole self. Or nothing. After years of studying both subjects at the same time, I first graduated from Uni and, two years later, the music school. I then had to start making some decisions – ideally I would have made them a lot earlier, but what can I say, a classic generation Y situation?! Suddenly I was asking The Big Questions, like - What will I do with my life? Which path should I continue on? The result was, I started doubting everything I had ever chosen. All at once it seemed to me that there was no logic to my life. Did I just keep running in different directions at random? I may even at one point have Googled “What do I do if my life is a mess?” Incidentally, that question gets about 37 million(!) hits. I was not alone.

Now, let me take a step back in time. My goal with my theology studies was to become a pastor in the protestant church in Finland. I have always been interested in what people actually feel when they say they believe in God, or indeed any divinity or higher power. What is it that makes them believe that they believe? What do they experience? How would they describe this experience of ‘the divine’? During my religious studies I came across a definition that appealed to me. According to some line of thought ‘the holy’ can be described as something ‘wholly other’ or ‘separate from the mundane’. To me this made perfect sense. The idea of ‘the holy’ being simply something Other than our everyday lives – things that we can see and feel, hear or touch - gave words to the experience that I had had.

However strong these experiences were, during my studies I started to doubt. To the point that I realized that I couldn’t say the words which would be required of me, with sincerity. When I realized that I wasn’t at all sure that ‘the holy’ could be found in the theological frameworks that I knew and had grown up with, I was understandably doubtful about the kind of pastor I would make... I realized that my problem was not with the idea of God, but with the words that were used to express and contain him. Her. It. You see my point.

This didn’t mean that my search for something Other was cancelled. I still felt ‘the call’ - I just needed to figure out where it was coming from.

I remember once listening to a piece by the Baroque composer Georg Muffat (I strongly recommend his concertos if you feel like listening to some beautiful baroque music) when I felt that my heart was being simultaneously torn to pieces and mended by the extreme beauty of the harmonies. The experience was so profound and surprising I felt out of breath and ready to cry. I probably was in an emotionally receptive state anyway, but that doesn’t matter. The experience of beauty was something not of this world.

But can I call it a holy experience?

According to some I could. According to me I could. This realization gave so much sense to my life. It hasn’t been random. It hasn’t been illogical. It has always been a journey in search of beauty, of something beyond the mundane.

Someone said that, ‘... sacred moments allow us to enter again and again that timeless and transforming psychological space from which renewal and creativity emerge.’ I found that space. For me - and of course this is a completely subjective experience - the theological words prevented me from freely experiencing beauty, but in music I found a way to let myself feel, truly and profoundly. That is why I choose to be on the path I am on. I have to keep walking it. I have a deep need to be surrounded by a beauty that touches my soul over and over again – I find this beauty in music.

I guess my point with this story is that weather it is God or Krishna, music, a peaceful landscape or you know, a perfect balance between the taste of lingonberry and caramel sauce, that gives you a feel of something beyond the immediate reality, hold on to it. Cherish it. It is beautiful and gives hope.

Like anyone, I still wonder who am I and where I’m going, but the experience of beauty makes it easier.


Eerika Pynnönen is a Finnish musician. She has a classical training in viola and music education and is currently exploring her opportunities in Paris. She has a background in theology, where she focused her studies on New Testament exegetics and the social situation of the first Christians in particular. She is composing music for one of the short films we are doing in collaboration with leading film schools, writers and the StoryVid initiative.

Possible Wor(l)ds: Spanish to English Code-Switch Tags in Junot Díaz

Possible Wor(l)ds: Spanish to English Code-Switch Tags in Junot Díaz

Any exploded society, like the Dominican Republic, in some ways
you could say has multiple existences. It’s funny how some people
in the Dominican diaspora don’t see any diaspora whatsoever—
who believe that somehow, miraculously, at some imaginary level,
that a nation exists as some sort of pure territorial space, and that therefore

the insane level of connectivity that late modern capitalism brought and
that international divisions of labor, which produced a lot of
fucking waves of immigration – that all of these things don’t exist.

–JUNOT DÍAZ, 2009

Possible Wor(l)ds: The Social and Literary Significance of Spanish to English Code-Switch Tags in Junot Díaz

Junot Díaz’s stories emanate from a hybrid, translated linguistic landscape that politicizes language as the setting of a very real conflict. The Dominican-born author and his work do not fight to inhabit a nation of land, but rather to expand and enrich a nation of words. Via his short stories and novels, Díaz actively participates in a discursive battle taking place at the level of language, although it is effectively and operationally larger, intertwined with society itself. The conflict in question, concerned with what language(s) may be used, and in what world(s), is particularly heated in the author’s country of residence, the USA. In fact, many will remember that Díaz’s literary project was criticized for its overuse of “Spanglish” much before it was accepted, even renowned, as it is today. The academy’s initial criticism of Díaz and his use of Spanish peppered English was just one battle in the war over (discursive) national boundaries under discussion. In essence, it is a conflict over the American lexicon which continues today, occurring at every level, from the personal to the political. In the idiosyncrasies of a Díaz text this conflict is expressed lexically, or formally, in the alternating use of English and Spanish popularly conceived of as his distinctive prose style. It has also been critically assessed as Díaz’s particular brand of literary code-switching (see Eugenia Casielles-Suarez) different from the bilingual style of other authors like Giannina Braschi or Susana Chavez-Silverman. The goal of this paper is a dually linguistic and theoretical analysis of “lexical setting,” or what I call “linguistic territoriality,” in Díaz’s short story collection This is How You Lose Her (2012). To clarify, the use of “setting” here should not be confused with the once conventional notion of setting as a mere backdrop where plot and conflict occur. Rather, this study prescribes to a postmodern notion of setting that is exceedingly aware of language and brings the linguistic component of narration to the fore. Ergo, more than the rivers and suburban compounds of New Jersey populate Díaz’s short stories, it is within the language of the narration itself that the author’s most heated and byzantine conflicts unfold.

Historically, it goes nearly without saying that the Earth’s finite inhabitable land masses were the primary territory fought over by neighbors and enemies. For most of the history of civilization, the foreign foe’s particular parlance, the language they happened to speak, seemed far less important than that key terrestrial asset. A select few, the Greeks among them, placed limited importance on the strange sounds made by foreigners as a means to distinguish between “us and them,” between the citizens and the barbarians (who made nonsense sounds i.e. bar bar). More representative of history are the feudal societies, for example, which concentrated power in the landholding few, leaving the rest to squabble and tillage in poverty. Nevertheless, it can also go nearly without saying that in contemporary times, however, the majority of land and sea areas have been colonized and staunchly partitioned by the power invested in the modern nation-state and government. As a consequence, it is land that has finally succeeded to language as the territory up for disputei. In Díaz’s brief but pertinent analysis of the Dominican Republic above he provides us with a site-specific explanation as to why the prevalence of language as disputed territory is a consequence of our postmodern and postcolonial times.

Following Díaz, Dominican society is reeling from the social ramifications of globalization and is now fragmented, mobile, and unsettled. He goes so far in the quote as to insist that the Dominican Republic (furthermore the DR) be thought of as an “exploded society,” selecting the particular adjective exploded in order to invoke a set of specific cultural characteristics caused by the explosive globalization process. Interestingly, those features are near equivalents to those described as “liquid” by sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. In Bauman’s theory of postmodernity, our current fluid experience of time and space is the result of the dismantling of modernity’s solid promises by late capitalism. The overlap of their ideas is apparent when Díaz explains that “late modern capitalism” detonated the Dominican explosion via its globalizing effects and aftereffects. Espousing essentially the same argument as Bauman and many other social theorists of our time, Díaz asserts that late decadent capitalism is both an effect of, and cause for, the organization of society today. The same thought process informs Bauman’s complex argument in his many published books on the subject (see Liquid Modernity, Liquid Love, and Globalization: The Human Consequences). Díaz moves a step further in concretizing this notion by ascribing it to a particular nation—the DR—and mimetically exploring the way modernity has altered the conventions and spaces of that society via the literary exercise. By asserting that the once island-inhabiting society is currently in a diasporic state—or “not a nation that exists as some sort of pure territorial space”—and that one would be crazy not to see it, he implies another feature: that is, that the nation exists in the Andersonian sense of an imagined community wedded by a shared language and culture, but importantly in the case of the DR, not by a homeland. In other words the territory or island of the historical DR itself no longer solidly defines the Dominican nation having been cast into diaspora by liquid modernity. As a member of that diaspora and author, Díaz’s literary project reflects this “homelessness” in that it emphasizes the search and fight for language as an attempt to construct a Dominican identity in diaspora.

Arguably, the explosion of Dominican society as a result of globalization intensified an emergent conflict over language to which Díaz was and is connected via live wire. By and large, it is not at all atypical for communities in diaspora to fight to maintain the use of their heritage language as a way to identify with their larger body politic, scattered as they may be. As a result language often becomes one of the dominant politicized features of those communities (and may radiate outwards, unsettling the lexical communities into which they arrive, as well). Therefore, for the Dominican community in exile, a subsequent effect of the aforementioned “explosion” has been the posterior development of a novel linguistic landscape outside of the DR. On the US side, this lexicon, we argue, took on “liquid” or “smooth” characteristics as they are described by Bauman and Deleuze and Guattari, respectively (explored later on in this paper). Ultimately, as a consequence we might anticipate that the confluence of these occurrences be displayed in novel and innovative language derivations, in particular, at the contact zones where the fight for rights to language and identity are underway—in literature as much as in the street. Such is the case with the work of Díaz. His texts represent and figure this “discursive battle” at the lexical level through the uninhibited use of code-switching between his native language, Spanish, and his second language, English. In addition, a further theoretical dimension of this analysis claims that in this discursive battle to occupy the cultural space of language and to dominate it, the deterritorialization and reterritorialization of language occurs so that what Deleuze and Guattari (1987) refer to as a smoothening of striated space—in this case linguistic space—also takes place across Díaz’s texts.

First see that, yes, language is a highly politicized cultural space. For centuries, the historical Jewish diaspora identified the Israelite nation not with a specific territorial space but in the declaration of themselves as “the people of the book,” or, “the nation of the book.ii” This is to say that imagined communities territorialize and claim rights to language as much as to physical spaces, a tendency we have been arguing is exacerbated by the diasporic condition. In reality, today, in postcolonial America, hybridic-diaspora is the norm and not the deviation. A fact that, as pointed out by critic and theorist Shirley Geok-Lin Lim,iii carries with it an array of cultural consequences: the contestation of the notions of purity, of homeland, and the deterritorialization of language. The deterritorializing motion is away from singular, purist readings of language such as that of Octavio Paziv and towards reimagined contemplations of both novelistic and/or organic language that see it for what it has always been—the hybrid form that Bhaktin problematizes back in the 1930s, unpacking its double nature in The Dialogic Imagination (358-360). Contemporary society’s preoccupation with what has been labeled “code-switching” is endemic to this cultural development, a feature of our postcoloniality.

“Code-switching” is on everybody’s lips, a trend word fast turning into the quickest mediation for a fascinating socio-linguistic phenomenon: the hybridization of language. With its widening appeal, the sense of what it means to code-switch has transformed. For some scholars, to code-switch means to utilize any notable alternation in register even within a single language. According to other scholars of linguistics, code-switching rather designates “the alternation of two languages within a single discourse, sentence or constituent,” (Poplack 583). Qualifying code-switching as the alternation of two distinct languages by a speaker rather than as merely of two or more registers in the same language is essential when considering its relevance to the linguistic struggles pertinent to diaspora; clearly, the linguist’s definition is the more viable for this analysis. Nevertheless, still further sub-categories exist within the linguistic notion of code-switching.

In the 1980s text of seminal importance to the theory and research of code-switching, Shana Poplack’s Sometimes I Start a Sentence in Spanish Y Termino en Español: towards a topology of code-switching, Poplack presents research findings from a case study of twenty Puerto Rican heritage New Yorkers living in East Harlem. Poplack’s sample is in fact not a distant linguistic match from Díaz’s primary speaker in This is How You Lose Her, Yunior. The Díaz protagonist is, similarly, a first-generation Dominican American living in the New York metropolitan tri-state area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut during his later childhood and into adulthood. Returning to Poplack’s linguistic study, the sample of heritage and immigrant Spanish/English speakers she analyzes is divided following the types of code-switches they perform. The two main types Poplack identifies are (1) “intra-sentential” and (2) “emblematic” code-switches. The first type, labeled as more intimate and complex:

i This thesis is a derivation on the theme of Foucault’s biopolitics. Foucault scholar Giorgio Agamben explains that “According to Foucault, a society’s “threshold of biological modernity” is situated at the point at which the species and the individual as a simple living body become what is at stake in a society’s political strategies. After 1977, the courses at the Collège de France start to focus on the passage from the “territorial State” to the “State of population […]” (10). This is what we also try to address, the turn away from “territorial” politics to a politics of agency, voice, and language in this case.

ii The book was the Torah, or Old Testament.

iii Lim writes, “as people move from their natal territories, notions of individual and group identity, grounded in ideas of geographical location as a national homelands and of segregated racial purity become contested and weakened. The literatures being produced today by immigrant populations and by nationalists reflect, address, express, and reconstruct the late-twentieth century preoccupation with and interrogation of concepts of “identity,” “home,” and “nation” (294).

iv Literary critic Ilan Stevens quotes Octavio Paz in his book, Spanglish: the Making of a New American Language, as having said of the mixing of English and Spanish, “ni es bueno ni es malo, sino abominable” (4).

[I]nvolves a high proportion of intra-sentential switching as in (7) below.
(7) a. Why make Carol SENTARSE ATRAS PA’ QUE [...] everybody has to movePA’ QUE SALGA [...]? ( 589)

According to Poplack, linguists agree that intra-sentential code switching is the “real” code-switching (589). Her definition and example cited above emphasize that “intra-sentential” code-switches involve alternations between two code systems that must fit together grammatically. Surely, that an intra-sentential switch displays greater grammatical complexity in comparison to the other code-switch forms contributes to the large interest it holds for linguists. Of more interest to our own argument are the second type, the “emblematic” switches that are also called “tag-switches,” or simply “tags.” They are referred to as being ‘emblematic’ in that they are considered a type of emblem of the speaker’s ethnic identification. They implicate a change in a single noun or noun group, giving them the name “tag,” and are considered to be grammatically less complex although more culturally charged:

Another [type] is characterized by relatively more tag switches and single noun switches. These are often heavily loaded in ethnic content and would be placed low on a scale of translatability, as in (8).

(8) a. Vendía arroz [...] ‘N SHIT.

      b. Salían en sus carros y en sus [...] SNOWMOBILES. (589)

Poplack’s topology of code-switching affirms the social significance of its practice, especially to those who make use of “emblematic” switches, as in above. The definition of the emblematic code-switch (furthermore ‘tag’) provides us with the grounds to further along our argument about Díaz’s own use of code-switching: first off, based on the token sample and definition Poplack provides here (Vendía arroz n’ shit) it is apparent that Díaz exploits ‘tags’ or “emblematic” code-switches in his work more than any other type of code-switches. His strategy “goes from the sentence and even the phrasal level inwards down to the word level” (Casielles-Suarez 2013: 485). In the paragraph below, we provide examples of Díaz at work with tags for comparison. More importantly, Poplack also establishes that this code-switch type is most often performed as a kind of identity politics: she writes, tags are “heavily loaded in ethnic content” and “constitute an emblematic part of the speaker’s monolingual style” (589). She goes on to say that the use of a tag signifies something about the speaker’s membership in a group (589). Specifically, the use of tag-switches increases when a speaker is interacting with a non-group member, whereas the use of intra-sentential code-switching increases during communication with in-group members (599). Explained colloquially, tags are dominant when it is necessary to “defend one's turf,” or assert oneself in a foreign context—as does Díaz in the space of the English language.

In the particularities of Díaz’s code alternation, we can observe in his texts that the most frequent speaker, Yunior, tags the American English Black Vernacular he grew up with emblematic tokens from the Dominican lexicon. Words such as “pópola” (2012: 47), “deguabinao,” and “estribao” (2012: 101) appear alongside more normative American Latino formulations, such as “hijo de la gran puta” (2012:134) or “gringo children” (2012:133). However, his code-switch tags are at their strongest in alternations that meld and fuse languages seamlessly in novel and delicious sounding noun-groupings such as, “for the record I didn’t think Pura was so bad […] Guapisima as hell: tall and indiecita,” (2012:101). Guapisima as hell sounds incredibly natural to the English-Spanish bilingual, so much so that it nearly hurts to see its novelization, as if it had been co-opted from a friend’s mouth. Another telling example: “These viejas were my mother’s old friends […] and when they were over was the only time Mami seemed somewhat like her old self. Loved to tell her stupid campo jokes,” (2012: 92). Campo jokes. These tags produce an in-group feeling that transmits insider cultural knowledge and reminders of folk identities from the island to inside readers, but more importantly, they provide outsiders with an equally out-of-group feeling, making the English language strange to the most native and “pure” English speakers/readers.

Ultimately, tags are also a way to invade and occupy, to territorialize the major language one is forced to use, with the minor language that constitutes an aspect of speaker identity. It is a politic. Tags are part and parcel of what I have been calling the discursive battle to occupy the cultural space that is language. Let us think about this from a different angle for the length of a few paragraphs. Metaphorically, a code-switch tag functions almost identically to the visual tag of the graffiti artist. Both are means of declaring and asserting one’s own culture and alliances over others in the encounter with an Other who may not share the same background. As Poplack affirms about the tags of code-switching, the “tagz” of graffiti are also “heavily loaded in ethnic content;” that tags/z are considered “emblematic” of an artist and their particular style rings at least equally as true to those enmeshed in the world of graffiti (if not more so) as to those cognizant of the world of linguistic tagging. At their most obvious, both linguistic and graffiti tags/z are a type of swag a type of style fashioned to be seen by others. Appreciated subtly, tags/z communicate details about an individual’s personal, ethnic, and group identity to the rest of the world (i.e. non-group members). The tagz of the street writer, after all, are most often an epithet for the name of the graffiti artist and their artistic persona. The characteristic word is then painted in unique form on numerous city walls and abandoned buildings in a very public fight “to get up,”or to dominate, on the “scene.”

New York City Tag In Process

New York City Tag In Process

Also important is that each interlocutor in this battle hopes to dominate over other authors as much as to sabotage and threaten the bureaucratic space of the city wall. The tag embodies something of lawlessness, transgression of the codes and norms of society—something buccaneer. Whether it be leaving your personal mark on a public or ordered space as in the graffiti artist, or tagging a major language with a minor one i.e. Díaz, both graffiti tagz and code-switch tags are a means of reterritorializing established linguistic spaces and rearranging them to give way to an author’s (minor) idiosyncratic language. In “Bombing modernism: Graffiti and its Relationship to the (Built) Environment,” design writer Amos Klausner explains graffiti’s subversive signifying potentiality: 

[It has the] ability to reconsider letter forms, reformulate language, and destroy the accepted hierarchies of communication. With no artificially imposed order and the inherent decentralization of postmodernism as its guide, graffiti writers used irony (in the form of the oppressor becoming the oppressed), double coding (writers communicated simultaneous messages to different social groups), and paradox (the inherent illegibility of their work), as tools to change our shared expectations of how, where, and why we communicate. It [graffiti] is an archetypal study in semiotics where signs and symbols are used to recognize how meaning is formulated and perceived. (3)

In the essay, “The Smooth and the Striated,” Deleuze and Guattari develop an ontology of (cultural) space offering a series of explanations throguh various “models” of the dialectic between the two (1987: 474-500). As the title suggests the smooth (rather than the smooth-en-ed) is the original space of departure, of unbridled creativity and immanence. The striated always implies a once smooth space. Deleuze and Guattari cite the ocean in all its “intensities” as the representation of original smooth space par excellence (though other examples include the smooth space of the fetal uterus in the early stages of gestation, for example) until “maritime space” was striated by measures, bearings and maps, and its striation set forth by the Portuguese in 1440 (1987:479). In addition, Deleuze and Guattari establish smooth space as nomadic space, drawing heavily on examples of cultural artifacts and practices of nomadic people to illustrate inhabited smooth space throughout the chapter. When the smooth versus striated (or nomad versus state) opposition is applied to language, we can say with some certainty that the striated textual fabric of today’s linguistic landscape has its origins in the smooth. The oral traditions of traveling storytellers and poets were at some point commodified and transformed into the institution of the Western Book (Manzanas and Benito 2003: 13). In literature, the bourgeoisie novel more than poetry has traditionally been a striated space, the artifice representing a striated linguistic and social environment back to itself. Also consider the strict categorization of literature by nationality, the staunch editing procedures of the publishing house. Yet, we are at a turning point and the hype around code-switching likely reflects a smoothening linguistic landscape across levels and cultural spheres. What Junot Díaz does in his work—smoothing the striated linguistic space of published literature—is a symptom of the times.

Before remarking on what makes Junot Díaz particularly “nomadic” in the Deleuzian sense, a few preliminary words should be said on the author in general. Díaz is aggressively creative. Having been criticized for his use of English interspersed with Spanish, and measured against a status quo instituted by language purists who set up impassable barriers, he was eventually embraced, even glorified by the establishment, teaching creative writing at one of the most prestigious universities in the world. He is on the board of the world-renowned Pulitzer Prize. The purpose of this anecdote is not to suggest that Díaz in particular has been successful at elevating code-switching in the eyes of the literary establishment, but that this event reflects transformations underway in even the most firmly-ensconced institutions’ relationship with language. One might even say that the cultural boundaries dividing languages are in the process of being gutted and reformulated.

As further exploration, let us begin with reflections on the (textual) city. Described by Deleuze and Guattari as “the striated space par excellence,” (1987:481) the city is and also represents the established, striated, codes of modernity. From the unmoving asphalt wall, up to the gridlocked skyscrapers of the metropolis, we find striated spaces stifling creative vision and movement. In that same vein, the catalogued Spanish of the Academia Real Española and the measured English of Oxford’s Cambridge English exams striate linguistic spaces: classifying, subordinating, restricting. Just as city buildings subordinate pedestrians to specific trajectories, as Deleuze and Guattari explain: “in striated spaces, lines or trajectories tend to be subordinated to the trajectory: one goes from one point to another” (1987: 478) without wandering or questioning. In another seminal text on the urban landscape, “Walking in the City,” Michel de Certeau examines the human inhabitation of cities in their spatial and metaphorical aspects, concluding about the act of being a pedestrian: “they are walkers, Wandersmänner, whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban “text” they write without being able to read” (93). The code of the city dictates to its users, as language to its speakers, to blindly follow the preordained path from one point to another with little to no awareness of their implicit participation in etching the boundaries still deeper, its stories rigorously and staunchly conventional.

Yet we return to the fight, which disrupts and rewrites the code that encourage a blind surrender to fixed boundaries. Díaz and other taggers’ rebuttal in this dually discursive and urban battle is the practice of developing what Deleuze and Guattari call nomadic smooth spaces (1987: 481). Their minds and imaginations become smooth spaces that liberate trajectories of intellectual and imaginative wandering As a result, their innovations can presumably smoothen the striated. Returning to Díaz, he himself has remarked that his use of code-switching is a result of a kind of liberation of his tongue, or in his English-Spanish lexicon:

One of the things that’s helped me is that I have a particular amount of shamelessness around these different idioms that I love. […] I’ve never felt any shame of misusing the language that I grew up with […] It takes so much more energy keeping these things apart. (2009)

His code-switching is the result of an organic mixing of languages that ultimately comes more naturally to him than maintaining their striation and maintaining apart his multilingual capacities. Although the tags and code-switches present in his work are arguably carefully planned representations (re-formulations) of an authentic linguistic vernacular, they re-establish an uninhibited non-order across the linguistic landscape of the text and bring the reader to (surprised) attention and to unanticipated feelings and readings. It is from this point that a “migrational, or metaphorical, city thus slips into the clear text of the planned and readable city,” (DeCerteau 93). Meandering through the enclosed frontiers of striated factual space, dodging the mines and pitfalls detonated by a threatened literary status quo, Díaz and other nomadic taggers at their most effective “insinuate other routes into the functionalist and historical order of movement,” (105) smoothening and liberating striated urban and linguistic landscapes.

As in the picture on pg. 18, the graffiti artists’ tagging, or “bombing,” completes much the same function across the code of the city landscape. After the artist's nomadic quest through the city to find an appealing space, their tags will reroute and rewrite the code of the striated space of the urban wall via novel, rhizomatic and chaotic lines and trajectories. The nomads mark their turf in the reterritorializing process. As DeCerteau suggests and Deleuze and Guattari aptly point out once again, striated spaces can at times become smooth, depending on the trajectories and manners of the sentient beings that live in that space and how they occupy it:

[I]t is possible to live striated on the deserts, steppes, or seas; it is possible to live smooth even in the cities, to be an urban nomad (for example, a stroll taken by Henry Miller in Clichy or Brooklyn is a nomadic transit in smooth space; he makes the city disgorge a patchwork, differentials of speed, delays and accelerations, changes in orientation, continuous variations […] (1987: 482)

Deleuze and Guattari offer Henry Miller’s occupation and movement through the city landscape as an example of “living smooth” in a striated urban space. Similarly, Junot Díaz’s code-switches are a way of living, writing, and speaking smooth; linguistic meandering is part of his hybrid identity, forged in a linguistic landscape complicated by the diasporic condition. Like Henry Miller’s path through the city, Díaz and the other speakers sampled by Poplack in her landmark study mark a new path through linguistic space; their free code alternations make striated language space “disgorge a patchwork” and “change orientation” in that they inhabit a creative, diasporic wandering between the world(s) of Spanish and English, shamelessly discarding conventions of parlance. Combining guapisima as hell with the Foucalt-referencing (Díaz 2012: 15) theory and jargon part of his vocabulary as a university professor, Díaz etches a unique path through the city: through linguistic registers pertaining to various socioeconomic classes and races, he is able to narrate the language heteroglossia that authoritative discourse would rather deny. Díaz’s insistence on the relevance of Spanish words and phrases to his literary project, in the face of an outspoken American public majority xenophobically declaring the Star-Spangled Banner (the American national anthem) be recited in English only, is powerful.

In this paper, we have observed a unique link between the signifying of the lexical tags in Junot Díaz’s narrations with the tagz of the graffiti artist. Tags and tagz seem to overlap in shared meaning; attesting to a battle of the discursive sort being waged in the frontier lands of North America, and globally as the contact zones between cultures inevitably expand. In a move resembling the linguist’s analysis of demographic and language-oriented features of a sample, I have presented tokens of the Díaz protagonist Yunior’s code-switching in This is How You Lose Her for the analysis of its language, not as a closed system, but as a socially situated tool. We did not propose to undertake a rigorous empirical linguistic analysis of the Junot Díaz short story collection This is How…. Rather, this peculiar metalinguistic, discourse analysis has been offered in support of broader claims about the changing linguistic landscape of postmodernity—with special attention payed to a concrete analysis of the hybridity that postcolonial critics, for example, have been referencing for the past fifty years. Furthermore, we have argued for the popular manifestation of code-switching as a form of identity politics, not only site-specific to Diaz’s literary texts, but observable in the general linguistic landscape particular to our society today. We have also tried to demonstrate this feature as a symptom of a “smooth-en-ing,” in the Deleuzian and Guatarrian sense of the linguistic landscape occurring in today’s globalized and—perhaps Díaz says it best himself—exploded societies. 

Juliana Nalerio is a PhD researcher at the University of Valladolid, Spain, in American Studies and Comparative Literature. Working at the intersection of literature and critical theory, her research explores the aesthetics and ethics of modern American literature in the continental sense. She is currently working on her doctoral dissertation, a project that attempts to unpack literary violence in its symbolic, systemic, and subjective forms in both North and South American novels and short story texts. She holds a master's degree from The University of Valladolid (Premio extraordinario) and a B.A. from New College of Florida-the Honors College of Florida, as well as certificates from studies at Middlebury College, The University of Chicago, The University of Edinburgh, as well as Birkbeck, University of London, and Texas A&M University (upcoming).

Juliana is a member of the national research group, "A Critical History of Ethnic American Literature: An Intercultural Approach," directed by Dr. Jesús Benito Sánchez.

Majka and Sina

Majka and Sina

And I think for those of us who have crossed borders–the artificial beginning is interesting to me. There is a clear-cut: old life, that's old country, and here's there's new life, new country."
–YIYUN LI

 

As she wrung the water out of the mop, Emina hummed to herself a medley of choruses from childhood songs. The floor was painted concrete, quick and easy to put together – but difficult to clean.

The metal door creaked open then slammed shut. Gojko strutted in as he usually did, but this time more hurriedly. He was a pain at times, but she was always happy to see him. “Gojko,” she acknowledged his presence.

“Joe, Mother. English, please.” He spoke into the air, pulling his duffle bag out from under his cot.

She eyed his stocky frame as she slopped the yarn-headed mop onto the floor. A few drops of water splashed on to her house dress – too big for her, but comfortable. They had had this conversation before, and it had become part of the routine of living in this place. She would tease him a bit. “Okay, Joe-Gojko, you seem to be going somewhere. Let me guess – where this time? Australia? New Zealand?” Then she remembered his most recent machinations. “Oh, wait a minute. What happened to Germany?”

“Never,” he snapped, throwing balls of socks into the bag. “I’ll never ever go to Germany.”

The last thing she had heard was that his friend Milo had arranged a visa wedding with a distant German cousin – or so he said. What Gojko would have to do, how much he’d have to pay, was anyone’s guess. 

With a slight smile she said, “Oh, no, you’re leaving that poor girl at the altar?”

He responded with a silent glare.

A car pulled in close to their portion of the A-frame – the rabbit hutch, she called it when they were first brought there. The engine sputtered and wheezed. She recognised it as Milo’s old Volkswagen and watched as Gojko stuck his head out the door and yelled, “Deset minuta. Okay?”

Having finished with the floor for now, she took out a tattered rag and dipped it into a vinegar-soap mixture she had created herself and kept stored in olive jars. She had several olive jars of soapy concoctions.

“Majka,” he interrupted her routine. “I’m not staying here. And I’m not coming back. Not this time.”

For a man of twenty-seven he was such a boy, so full of unrealistic dreams and unable to do much more than play cards and smoke cigarettes with the other men-boys. Since he returned from the war he’d only managed odd jobs – delivering packages, painting houses and the occasional days of hauling bricks at a construction site. Of course, she couldn’t take him seriously. But she, his majka, felt obliged to play along. It was like being an actress playing the same role again and again with slight variations. She would start as the pleading mother. “But things have changed, sina.”

“What changed?” he snapped. “Nothing changes. The war is over and twelve years now we live in these filthy barracks. This vetse, this…” He strained to think of the English words.

“Shit hole,” Emina piped in.

“Shit hole. Thank you,” he said. “Look at you cleaning all day. We wear clothes of strangers. We eat food from Red Cross. We wait in lines to take shower, wash hands, pee and shit.”

She switched the conversation back into the language of her head, the language the government was now calling Bosnian. “Things have changed – others are leaving. They have found good work and they left. Soon it will be our turn. You need to have some patience.” Her voice was thin and unconvincing, even to herself.

He shook his head and continued scavenging for things to pack. “Where’s Ivo’s box?”

Straightaway, the question angered her. “What do you want with Ivo’s things?”

“You don’t understand.” He spoke quickly. 

She knew he was serious this time. He had never asked for Ivo’s things before. The shoe box contained the few items of Ivo’s Emina managed to collect before their home collapsed around her – a model car that he assembled with his father, a couple of ties that he wore to his job at the supermarket and a silver watch given to Ivo on his eighteenth birthday. From time to time when she couldn’t sleep, she would dig into the box and hold each item, inhaling the musty smell in the ties that once smelled of clean aftershave. 

As she gazed at Gojko, who was rummaging through a donated child’s dresser, she noticed a shadow in a corner – it looked like by a spider’s web. How could she have missed that one? She had wiped the walls down only two days ago. And what did Gojko mean about her cleaning all of the time? She certainly wasn’t going to live like a filthy refugee. Before the war, she and her husband had been professionals, a teacher and a lawyer – people who lived in clean homes with patio gardens.

She suddenly realised what Gojko was after. “Where are you going? You’re not thinking of going to America again, are you?”

“Majka, no. Just where is Ivo’s box?”

She didn’t believe him. “It’s very difficult to get into America. They have a lottery system for immigrants. And if you try to go in through the Mexican border, they’ll shoot you dead.”

“I’m not going to America,” he said firmly. “I’m going to England.”

Relief. “Ah, now I understand. Do give my regards to the Queen.” Chuckling to herself, she returned to her olive jar, dipping the cloth inside and wiping ferocious circles on the Formica top. England was closer. If he didn’t make it, he could return home like the dog that had gone astray and went back to his master for food. This was just like the other times – but the idea that he wanted Ivo’s things still rattled inside her. The mere mention of Ivo’s name was a new wrinkle. She couldn’t remember the last time Gojko even uttered his elder brother’s name – it was always he as in he would have liked that, or his as in it’s his birthday today.

The vinegar smell overpowered the flowery soap smell. It was after all cheap soap – another of the donated products. It had only the slightest fragrance of carnations – everything about it was cheap. Perhaps that’s why she needed to apply it every day – especially along the metal rim, where she could see breadcrumbs and miniscule pellets of dark oil and food particles rolled together. 

“Majka,” Gojko’s meek voice said from behind her. 

She put the cloth down and realised that he had been staring at her again, watching her as she cleaned. The shoebox laid open on the cot with the ties and back wheels of the model car visible. On Gojko’s left wrist, the silver watch band caught a bit of caged light from the ceiling.

“You cannot take that!” Her anger rushed heat into her face. She lunged at him, clawing at his arm. He pushed her away, looking wildly at her as if she had gone mad. She stepped heavily toward him again. This time he grabbed her arm and twisted it behind her back, causing her to spin. She shook and panted, suddenly held prostrate with two hands behind her back. He learned to do that in the army, she thought. What a monster he had become.

“I have to go now, Majka,” he whispered into her ear, his face nuzzling into her shoulder. She could feel the warmth of his breath on her skin and smell the bitter-sweetness of cigarettes.

“You cannot take your brother’s watch. He’ll need it when he comes back.”

Gojko’s voice whispered heavily, “We both know he’s not coming back. I need the money to pay the transport man.”

She spoke briskly, “Smuggler you mean. The refugee smuggler. He’s just a crook. He’ll take your money and leave you stranded somewhere.”

He let go of her wrists and pushed her away. “That’s the chance I’ll have to take.” He hoisted the duffle bag over his shoulder.

In Emina’s eyes he appeared to be a man instead of a boy. How did that happen? Was she too busy cleaning to notice? She had to speak to him as she would a grownup – that was for sure. “I don’t want you to go. I don’t want you to leave me here with your father dead and Ivo missing.”

He gave her a glare as if she had harmed him with words. “You can come with me.”

“No, no, I’ll wait for Ivo.”

He shook his head and rolled his eyes.

She needed another tactic and reached far. “I’m needed here as a translator for all those foreign reporters.”

“What reporters?” He looked straight into her face. “I haven’t seen foreign reporters here in ten years at least.” He paused to think for a moment, then smiled at her. “Okay, I’ll go by myself. I’ll get a good job and send you money and you can come later.”

She smiled back, but couldn’t find the words in English or Bosnian to say that this was impossible.

He continued, “Or maybe, you use the money to move out of here. Hmm? Move to Zagreb.”

“I don’t like Zagreb. I’ll move out when our home is rebuilt,” she said firmly.

“But the last time they built it, it was bombed again. They won’t rebuild it again.”

She stooped to the floor and clutched at the damp cloth that had dropped in her frenzy to get the watch. The entire room, their one-room house, needed cleaning. It was greasy, dusty, disgusting. Unfit for humans. She resumed the circles over the Formica table top. 

Her son’s his eyes transfixed upon her. He finally spoke, “I’ll send you a big postcard from Buckingham Palace.”

That was her cue. “Okay, okay, big shot,” she chortled her words as her eyes focused on the grit under the metal rim. “Give my regards to Prince Charles and don’t forget to rub Prince Harry’s head for good luck.”

She could hear the metal door clang shut and the muffled sound of Milo’s engine spurting as it started up again. For just a fleeting moment, she envied her sina, her son – he had the ability to leave.

 

Paola Trimarco is a writer and linguist. Her short stories have been published in several literary magazines and some of her stage plays have been professionally performed with the support of Arts Council England. One of her essays was shortlisted by Wasafiri Magazine for their Life Writing Competition 2014. As a linguist, she has authored four textbooks, including Digital Textuality (2015, Palgrave Macmillan), and she has had her research published in several books and journals. She is also a regular contributor to the Literary Encyclopedia.

The Virtue of Hilary Mantel

The Virtue of Hilary Mantel

When I chose to make Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and A Place of Greater Safety the subject of my dissertation, there was a dearth of scholarly work available on the author. But by the time I replaced A Place of Greater Safety with Mantel’s second Booker-winner, Bring Up the Bodies, Mantel had become, in the words of the chairman of the judges of the 2012 Booker panel, “‘the greatest modern English prose writer’ working today” (Stothard qtd. in Brown). For three decades—from her completion of A Place of Great Safety in 1979 to the publication of Wolf Hall in 2009—Mantel persevered with her work not only as a novelist but also as a reviewer and journalist, creating an impressive collection of novels, short stories, reviews, sharp-witted social critiques, and a memoir. Yet, until the breakthrough of Wolf Hall, Mantel’s fiction was “relatively neglected” (Wallace 211). Her first historical novel, A Place of Greater Safety (1992), was dismissed by one British reviewer as “upmarket soap opera” (Smith). Yet Mantel’s persistence in avoiding narratives about “sweet people” (Atwood) in favor of exploring the “dark purposes” (Atwood) of the human condition paid off. The story of her emergence as a preeminent author following her two Booker-Prize wins is one of how Mantel developed an awareness of evil at an early age, overcame the prejudice of misogynistic literary critics, and persisted in the exploration of the “dark purposes” of men and women, but returned to exploring it in the public and private lives of historical power brokers.

A child’s early experience with evil—or even the suggestion of an evil presence that Mantel’s medium from Beyond Black, Alison Hart, would have detected—can irrevocably influence that child’s worldview. When Mantel was seven, as she recalls in her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, she encountered a malevolent force, nothing more than the “faintest movement, a ripple, a disturbance of the air” (Ghost 93): something neither visual nor audible, yet something that with “its motion, its insolent shift, [made her] stomach heave” (93). The effect on young Mantel was the dark underbelly of an epiphany: “Grace runs away from me, runs out of my body like liquid from a corpse” (93). After this experience, Mantel confesses that she “ceased to expect much good from the world” (Ghost 108). She identified the apparition in the garden as evil, ever since trying to understand it:

“Is evil simply—simply?—an outgrowth of human nature, or is it detachable from the human, a force at large in the world like a mercenary for hire, looking for a human master to serve, never without one for long and always worth the whistle?” (Ghost 109)

Mantel first began to explore humanity’s “dark purposes” in A Place of Greater Safety, a dense, long narrative about the power, corruption, and Machiavellian-style of virtue1 amongst three leaders of the French Revolution: Maximilien Robespierre, Georges-Jacques Danton, and Camille Desmoulins. Its length of nearly nine hundred pages no doubt contributed to the novel initially being rejected by publishers. The first novel Mantel did publish, Every Day is Mother’s Day, was an exploration of a modern-day, vitriolic relationship between a failed medium, her socially deviant daughter, and the social worker obliged to save them. Her next novel, Vacant Possession, is set ten years after the end of the previous novel and focuses on the manipulative, vengeful daughter, recently released from an asylum. Mantel recalls in a 2009 interview that her first two novels were read as women’s domestic fiction and, as such, were “read as domestic black comedies” (Mantel, “accumulated an anger”), despite her intention that one is a condition of England novel: “[Vacant Possession] was set in 1984! It’s a bit of a clue” (Mantel, “accumulated an anger”). Her third novel, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street—based on Mantel’s own experience living in Saudi Arabia when her husband was posted there—was similarly categorized as a domestic story, despite Mantel’s insistence on its insights into Islamic fundamentalism (Mantel, “accumulated an anger”). Set in the 1980s, the book is also an interesting study of a reversal of the kind of imperialism that saw the Middle-Eastern countries around Saudi Arabia overtaken by the British, the Americans, and other Europeans in between the two world wars. The protagonist, Frances Shore, is a cartographer who is not only unable to map Jeddah—the colonizers’ first endeavour to bring under control a perceived-barbaric country—but finds her identity subsumed into the purgatory of women’s lives in that country. If these three novels failed to receive serious literary attention, perhaps it is because those reviews were influenced by the preponderance of male literary critics found in the magazines and newspapers that publish book reviews.

In 2009, Vida: Women in Literary Arts first documented the gender imbalance found in the underrepresentation of female reviewers at publications such as The Atlantic, the Boston Review, the London Review of Books, and the New York Review of Books. This discouraging statistic was matched by the underrepresentation of reviews of female authors’ works in those same publications. No Vida count was made prior to 2009, but, ironically, it was a female critic for the Independent who said, in a review of Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety (Mantel’s fifth published book), that Mantel’s novel is an “upmarket soap opera” (Smith) compared with the venerable Simon Schama’s chronicle, Citizens: the “French Revolution as human tragedy” (Smith). Moreover, in a New York Times review, Mantel’s huge historical novel is criticized for leaving the reader stranded on the uncertainty of whether “we [are] reading history amplified by the empathy of the novelist or fiction dressed up in historical costume” (Bernier), an uncertainty the male reviewer says is never resolved. Despite this negative criticism, Mantel received growing respect as a “gifted writer” (Bernier), something that would solidify as female scholars found reasons to celebrate Mantel in their assessment of historical fiction in Britain.

In one of her essays about historical fiction, A. S. Byatt returns to the above-mentioned “uncertainty” in A Place of Greater Safety, about the unresolved areas of fact and fiction that are endemic to historical fiction. Byatt argues that “there is a new aesthetic energy to be gained from the borderlines of fact and the unknown” (55), suggesting that Mantel, rather than disappointing readers, is leading them in a new, unexplored direction. She compares Mantel’s use of the present tense in A Place of Greater Safety (the same tense she uses in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies) as something the author shares in common with Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. Byatt further praises Mantel’s “apparently straightforward, realist narrative . . . recreating the intellectual and emotional turmoil of the time both on the grand scale and with precise images of small, local details of pain, excitement, curiosity, terror and desire” (54). What she found in its “innocently realist[ic]” story was an “old-fashioned psychological narrative which is the imaginative form she gives to the lives of real, partially known men” (55). Byatt praises Mantel equally with Pat Barker—a Booker Prize winner for The Ghost Road in 1995—for the intimate focus the authors provide through their unnamed narrators. She is not the only literary scholar to compare Mantel to Barker.

In 2005, when Mantel published Beyond Black, Diana Wallace released a study of historical fiction written by British female authors across the decades of the twentieth century. She also finds similarities between Mantel and Barker, as well as between Mantel and Penelope Fitzgerald, because these authors appear, superficially, to be writing in the realist tradition while using strategies that also subvert that tradition. In Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety, Wallace argues that, although Mantel focuses the story on three major, historical figures, she situates the reader in and amongst them rather than giving a bird’s-eye view of these men and their roles in history. Wallace also argues that Mantel’s strategy of presenting dialogue in the form of a dramatic play “disrupts the usual practice of the realist novel and thus draws attention to its fictionality” (Wallace 205). Moreover, Wallace identifies an aspect of Mantel’s fictional exploration of historical characters that re-emerges in her Cromwell novels: “Mantel . . . is particularly interested in the disjunctions between the private early lives of [Robespierre, Danton, and Desmoulin], when little is known of them, and their public personae as world historical figures” (205). By identifying this preoccupation of Mantel’s, Wallace emphasizes the author’s precision at re-imagining the private lives of men before they become famous, but also their navigation of the competing demands of the public and private realms when they are at the height of their power.

When Wolf Hall won the 2009 Booker prize, journalistic attention on Mantel increased; more importantly, the reviews revealed excitement and respect for her prose. The Guardian praised the novel for being “[l]yrically yet cleanly and tightly written, solidly imagined yet filled with spooky resonances . . . it’s not like much else in contemporary British fiction” (Tayler). Renaissance scholar Stephen Greenblatt declared the novel “a startling achievement, a brilliant historical novel focused on the rise to power of a figure exceedingly unlikely . . . to arouse any sympathy at all” (Greenblatt). But it was perhaps Christopher Hitchens—who gave his review of Wolf Hall the title “The Men Who Made England”—who best reflects the impression the novel has made on many of its readers. He begins his review by reminding his readers how the effects of the English Reformation can still be felt today, before describing how the novel engages with “the origins of this once world-shaking combat, with its still-vivid acerbity and cruelty” and acclaiming it a novel of “quite astonishing power” (Hitchens). In a review that features many excerpts from the novel and a scathing attack on the Robert Bolt representation of Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, Hitchens ends by declaring Mantel to be “in the very first rank of historical novelists” (Hitchens). This kind of praise only escalated with the release and subsequent Booker win of Wolf Hall’s sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. In her review of the latter novel, Margaret Atwood summarized Mantel’s oeuvre as a general avoidance of “sweet people” in preference to the exploration of “dark purposes” and Mantel’s writing as “deft and verbally adroit” (Atwood). However, at least one other female author, who had endured the same kind of literary sexual discrimination as Mantel had, was sceptical about whether Mantel’s historical, second-Booker win meant anything had really changed for female authors:

Well, it’s tempting to be cynical about it and note that, after a respectable but underappreciated career of writing mainly about women, she was finally recognized as a literary heavyweight once she produced a novel that was all about men. . . . Maybe it’s more simple—maybe it’s just that, with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Mantel has hit her stride as a novelist; that her writing, now, is too good for anyone to ignore. (Waters qtd. in Mantel, “Unquiet Mind”)

As if to affirm Sarah Waters’s reflection that Mantel had become “too good for anyone to ignore,” Mantel’s previously maligned historical novel about the French Revolution has recently received the attention of a scholar honoured by the Modern Language Association with an Award for Lifetime Scholarly Achievement: Fredric Jameson.

In Antinomies of Realism, Fredric Jameson praises Hilary Mantel’s representation of Maximilien Robespierre in A Place of Greater Safety. According to Jameson, Mantel “turn[s] Robespierre into a believable character” (277), far removed from the “satiric weight of political vilification and the caricature of his personality and private habits” (278). According to Jameson, the benefit of the rehabilitation of an infamous historical power broker like Robespierre, often portrayed as a two-dimensional villain, is that his “political program [of the politics of Virtue] can now again be taken seriously” (278-79). Jameson emphasizes the contemporary significance of Robespierre’s stance against corruption, most notably explored in a speech that Robespierre gave to the Convention on 5 February 1794, in which he outlines his emphasis on the role that virtue plays in politics. In reaction to the corruption under which the former French aristocracy operated—the regime that the Revolution had ousted—Robespierre insisted that his fellow deputies always strive to “maintain[n] and develo[p] virtue . . . that which is immoral is impolitic, that which is corrupting is counterrevolutionary” (Robespierre qtd. in Shusterman 216). Jameson suggests this approach of Robespierre’s is an antidote to “the universal tolerance of corruption” (279) that thrives today.

Since her childhood haunting by an evil presence, Mantel has been attuned to the darkness in her world: of people, of society, of politics, of power, of history. In her fiction, she has explored the nature of evil in slim narratives about mothers and daughters, children and parents, women and society, men and women, and women and the spiritual world. Despite the dismissiveness of male literary critics during the years when Mantel devoted herself to exploring how evil can be “a ripple, a disturbance of the air” and “a force at large in the world (Ghost 93). Despite the disappointing—mostly male—reviews, Mantel continued to write, honing her skills in various forms of writing, building her creative strength for the novel that she’d been wanting to write since the 1970s (Mantel, “accumulated an anger”): a novel about Thomas Cromwell. By finally succumbing to the “robust[ness]” (“accumulated an anger”) of Thomas Cromwell, Mantel has reached the position of an author respected for her “ingenuity, skill, and ability” (Bondanella 93) and an author “who will be read and studied forever” (Hamilton qtd. in “accumulated and anger”).

Terri Baker is an instructor at two institutions in Calgary, Alberta: Mount Royal University and the University of Calgary. Her dissertation, “‘Beneath every history, another history:’ History, Memory, and Nation in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies,” examines the contemporary social critique Mantel makes in the novels and was defended in 2014. Her publications include a review of Mary Novik’s Muse for Canadian Literature, an essay on Ian McEwan’s Saturday for the anthology Writing Difference: Nationalism, Identity and Literature, and an essay contribution on Victorian women collectors for the anthology Contemporary Collecting: Objects, Practices and the fate of Things. Other publications include numerous book reviews and a feature article on Mary Novik’s Muse for the Historical Novel Review.

 

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. “The downfall of Anne Boleyn.” Rev. of Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel. Theguardian. The Guardian News and Media Limited4 May 2012. Web. 10 May 2012.

Bernier, Olivier. ‘Guillotine Dreams. Review of A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel. The

New York Times, 9 May 1993, http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/10/11/specials/mantel-place.html. Accessed 27 Dec 2016.

Bondanella, Peter, translator and editor. The Prince, by Niccolò Machiavelli, Oxford UP, 2005.

Brown, Mark. “Hilary Mantel Wins Man Booker Prize for Second Time.” Theguardian, 16 Oct. 

2012, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/oct/16/hilary-mantel-wins-booker-prize

Accessed 23 Oct. 2014.

Byatt, A. S. “Forefathers.” On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays. Chatto & Windus, 2000, pp. 36-64.

Greenblatt, Stephen. “How it must have been.” Review of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. The New York Review of Books, 5 Nov. 2009, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2009/11/05/how-it-must-have-been/. 10 April 2012.

Hitchens, Christopher. “The Men Who made England: Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall.” Review of Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. Arguably, Signal/McClelland & Stewart, 2011, pp. 146-151.

Jameson, Fredric. Antinomies of Realism, Verso, 2013.

Mantel, Hilary. Giving Up the Ghost: A Memoir. Fourth Estate, 2003. 

---. “I accumulated an anger that would rip a roof off.” Theguardian,16 Oct. 2012, https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2009/sep/12/hilary-mantel-booker-prize-interview. Accessed 23 Oct. 2014.

---. “The Unquiet Mind of Hilary Mantel.” Interview by Sophie Elmhirst. NewStatesman, 3 Oct. 2012, http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/culture/2012/10/unquiet-mind-hilary-mantel. Accessed 25 Nov. 2013.

---. Wolf Hall, 4th Estate, 2009.

Smith, Joan. “The rough and tumbril of history.” Review of A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary 

Mantel. Independent, 5 Sep 1992, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/book-review-the-rough-and-tumbril-of-history-a-place-of-greater-safety-hilary-mantel-viking-pounds-1549781.html. Accessed 27 Dec 2016.

Shusterman, Noah. The French Revolution : Faith, Desire and Politics. London, GB: Routledge, 

2013. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 29 December 2016.

Tayler, Christopher. Review of Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. theguardian, 2 May 2009

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/may/02/wolf-hall-hilary-mantelAccessed 28 

Dec 2016. 

Wallace, Diana. The Woman's Historical Novel: British Women Writers, 1900-2000, Palgrave 

Macmillan, 2005.

1 In his translation of The Prince, Peter Bondanella defines the concept of the virtue of which Machiavelli alludes as “a decidedly masculine quality, denoting ingenuity, skill, and ability (93).

We Were the Daughters

We Were the Daughters

"The beginning is like an incision.
She is forever revisiting the beginning;
it stands out distinctly in the course of her life,
whereas what follows seems back to front,
or cut off, or in disarray."
–MARIE DARRIEUSSECQ

Men

 

 

We were the daughters 

Of the witches 

Who could set fire to skeletons

Of the ones who wanted 

To castrate and crush

The petals of our flowering youth

To get their hands fragrant. 

We played this 'fire-game'

But not all the time, 

We had our moments of transcendence too,

 

We also had licked the sweat of the men,  

Who could brew us coca beans

Who could feed us bread, 

We also had our territories of peace,  

With our men in our land of significance, 

We were not witches but the daughters

Of the ones who once had gotten bewitched

Not because they wanted to, but they were asked to. 

 

Unlike our mothers we knew the meanings of tenderness and love-pecks, 

We could let our lovers use their bones 

On our paper-flesh as pens, 

We could sip the stories from their lips

But we also knew, where and when, 

To leave them desertedwith their strangled isolation haunting their no-more-lovely faces. 

 

We were the daughters of the witches they forgot to burn in the wombs of their mothers.

 

Ramsha Ashraf is an emerging Pakistani poet. Her debut poetry collection, Enmeshed, was published in 2015. She writes in three langauges including Urdu and Punjabi. Other than that she is linked with teaching Langauge and Literature in Pakistan. A believer of humanism and pragmatism, she is still learning to live a life worth living.

Sufferer’s Grave

Sufferer’s Grave

“But loneliness is as delusive a belief in the pertinence
of the world as is love: in choosing to feel lonely,
as in choosing to love, one carves a space next to oneself to be
filled by others - a friend, a lover, a toy poodle, a violinist on the radio.” 
― YIYUN LI,
Kinder Than Solitude

Translated from Turkish by: Suğra Öncü

–Loneliness is maddening, he groaned. You may go mad with pleasure. The pleasure of pain!

The night had not yet given way to the morning. The curtains were drawn tightly. Fog was everywhere. The bitter cold was like the Angel of Death.

– Now imagine eternal loneliness. Eternal… Loneliness!

After a moment of hesitation, once again:

– Eternal loneliness! This is how God went mad! We were the children of a lonely, mad God in pain. We were equally in pain. We were lonely. That’s what we said. But were we? Didn’t God blow the spirit of life into his creation?

Screeching owls were heard from the hills. Were they screeching because day light hurt their eyes? Outside, a funeral procession came down the street. A coffin on shoulders passed in front of the coffeehouse.

He slumped into the chair next to me.

– God created us. Then he wanted to be alone. So he got rid of us. He had given up on us. At first it was gratifying. It had a scary grandeur. But then… Then his loneliness turned into pain. Pain, pain, pain….

He stared at my face as if he was searching for the impression his words made. But my face was blank and I was lost for any words. There was anger in his eyes. He was angry at God, and he didn’t try to hide it.

– To relieve the burden of his loneliness God began to pull us one by one to his side. Wars, epidemics, poverty, depravity. We were trapped inside the agony of his spirit. God was going mad. God created. God gave life to his creation and then he took it away. Again and again…. God never had enough. God will never have enough. This will never end. God’s madness… The immortality of mortality… God will pull us all to his side, but God is wrong. It will never be enough.

He had a terrible cough. He was coughing as if his lungs would burst. He was a ragged man in his sixties. A freezing winter had settled over him. His firm pale lips broke into a shattered smile. He was a madman. That’s what they said. But was he, really?

He talked persistently:

– Something you create, is it enough for your loneliness? To what extent?

The funeral procession crossed to the other side of the lake, moving towards the graveyard where cypress trees kept their vigil.

– Is what you have created in your mind and what you have been dreaming of, is it enough for your loneliness? If it were, would you dream again? No! There is no end to dreams. Neither to loneliness…

I heard my heart saying, ‘Love is in it, too.’ He must have heard it:

– It never occurred to me.

– It didn’t? Well, it’s time it did.

From then on, the chair I was sitting in seemed too small to carry the burden inside me. I stood to leave, to follow the funeral procession to the graveyard.

***

A woman’s shadow falls on the half open window of a yellow house with damp walls, where magnolia incense burns inside. The curtains part. A two-horse carriage passes the deserted houses where wild weeds grow on their soil roofs. On the corner, a sad orange-colored girl plays a harmonica. A young man with a hangover moves his tobacco-stained lips to say hello. At thirty-five, a golden flurry passes in front me. A broken man walks behind me, swearing without pity for beautiful things. Clouds walk in the sky. It starts drizzling. Growing circles of waves move over the surface of the lake. My feet sink into a bed of leaves. The broken man never stops talking.

– Land of the dead! Graveyard of the lonely!

They had already dug a hole. I volunteer to perform a duty. Picking up the shovel lying on the ground, I begin to help the man throw soil on the grave. At first I feel a secret satisfaction. Then my heart feels like bursting through my chest. The man stops; I turn my gaze to where he is looking. Two people are approaching: a young man in a tweed jacket and an old woman on his arm. It's her, Havin. The dead man’s ex-wife.

How life’s weight and hardship has wiped the freshness off her face. It baffles me. Her whole life seems to be reflected in her eyes, shadowed by their long white lashes. I remembered her hair as pitch dark, all about the night. And now? The thin, ghostly strands showing on her drawn cheeks from underneath her scarf… What has God done to her?

She is like the memory of a dream. I visualize things that once could have happened but never did.

– God shouldn’t have let her be this way, says my inner voice. – He would have done me a big favor. Old thug! Come to your senses!

But still, all those years aren’t enough to suppress the beating of my heart. Those years of her life… It would never be enough. The feeling she awakens in me… That feeling, it is so intense!

She is still far away. She gently puts her hands together in front of her… Are they cold? Right now, I would willingly give away five years of my life just to take those hands to my lips and warm them with my breath. There isn't much left to do anyway. That is my only wish from God. If God makes my wish come true, I won't sit up till morning in coffee houses. I won't drink… That is, not that much…. I'll drink less. And gambling? Never again! When it comes to women…. They don’t come to me anymore, they are gone. It’s been quite a while since I left all that behind… That is, I was going to be a good person. I’m not that bad anyway. I mean no harm. I’m good. So why bargain with God? I’m already good, God must know this. I haven’t given to God any reason not to make my wish come true.

She moves nearer. Grabbing the shovel on the ground, I start lifting the soil again. With every move, I feel a burst of energy. I am in ecstasy. A feeling of satisfaction surges inside me! There, it's done!

A yellow butterfly perches on the tip of her shoe. We seem to be only a few words apart. I raise my head. She looks at my face as if she never knew me at all… as if she doesn't recognize me. Her face reflects the spirit of whiteness in this place. I shiver. The hope inside me gradually vanishes before her eyes. An abyss flings us apart. A howl rises and the ground begins to shake. Heaven and earth tremble. I think that I'm shouting, but nobody turns to see. Nobody hears!

I lower my eyes to the ground. The voice behind me has already died away. Because her lips are sealed in silence. I have a sinking feeling as I think of that man suffering under the ground. The man who never admitted being mad, going mad, just like….

I kneel down, my soul covered by his soil.

Don’t we, I say, don’t we ultimately all bear the spirit of God?

Şeyma Koç was born in a district called Yahyalı, Kayseri in 1994. She completed higher education in Akdeniz University, department of Political Science and Public Administration. Her short stories have been published in several magazines, including Varlık, Evrensel Kültür, Dünyanın Öyküsü, Sincan İstasyonu, Güncel Sanat, Kasaba Sanat, Tmolos Edebiyat, Çıngı, Aşkın E Hali and Bireylikler. Her first short story collection Küllerin Şehveti was released in November, 2015. Her stories have translated to Greek, Kurdish, German and English. Apart from literature, she is actively engaged in NGO projects and workshops concerning the education and the rights of women.