Cover Design: James Zhang Kartika Logo Design: Ben Hwang
ÂŠ 2008 by Kartika Review
Kartika Review publishes literary fiction, poetry, and non-fiction that endeavor to expand and enhance the mainstream perception of Asian American creative writing. The journal also publishes book reviews, literary criticism, author interviews, and artwork, turning its focus on works relevant to the Asian Diaspora or authored by individuals of Asian descent.
KARTIKA PRESS San Francisco, California
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MISSION STATEMENT Kartika Review serves the Asian American community and those involved with Diasporic Asian-inspired literature. We scout for compelling Asian American creative writing and artwork to present to the public at large. Our editors actively solicit contributions from established virtuosos in our community in hopes their works here will inspire the next generation of virtuosos. We also showcase emerging writers and artists we foresee to be the future powerhouses of their craft. Ultimately, Kartika strives to create a literary forum that caters to and celebrates the wordsmiths of the Asian Diaspora.
WINTER 2008 In This Issue. Michael Caylo-‐Baradi, Priyanka Champaneri, Jimmy Chen, Shome Dasgupta, Emmanuel Jakpa, Sheba Karim, Jee Leong Koh, Rodrigo Dela Peña, Cora Cabahug Pyles, Peter Schwartz, Chaiti Sen, Alvin So, Sabrina Tom, Wayne Sullins, Julie Wan Author Interview: Alexander Chee, author of Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night (forthcoming), named one of the 100 most influential people of the year by Out Magazine (2003); and Randa Jarrar, author of A Map of Home, winner of the Hopwood and Geoffrey James Gosling Awards. .
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TABLE OF CONTENTS Jason Wong
2008 Pushcart Prize Nominees
Jee Leong Koh
Rodrigo Dela Peña
City (After Arturo Luz)
Cora Cabahug Pyles
Thanks Lou Reed
Cruising on Revisitation
As Real As It Gets
At The Table
Editorial Jason Wong With the release of this issue, The Kartika Review celebrates its first full year of publication. What a year 2008 has been. While Kartika was turning one, China suffered from a massive earthquake, and shortly thereafter hosted a spectacular Olympic event for the ages while preparing to send astronauts to space. The price of petroleum soared over $140 a barrel and also came crashing below $40 during a global economic meltdown while Japan hosted the G8, Indian author Aravind Adiga won the 2008 Man Booker Prize for Fiction for his novel The White Tiger, and US and Iraqi negotiators agreed on a timeline for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. All this happened while Kartika was busily compiling literary art by Asians or about "being Asian" to show the world. This anniversary issue should be a treat for those of you who have been with us from the beginning, or who are just now beginning to explore the content of our pages. In fiction, Sheba Karim's "Qiyamat," one of our nominations for this year's Pushcart Prize, opens this issue with a compelling story about family, religion, and self-‐identification. "Qiyamat" is followed by Shome Dasgupta's spiritually poetic "Anklet." Wayne Sullins' "As Real As It Gets" comes next, while the fiction section closes with Cora Pyles' "Thanks Lou Reed," and Chaiti Sen's "Uma." Our poetry section begins with another Pushcart Prize nomination, Jee Leong Koh's "Childhood Punishments," which was inspired by Eavan Boland's "I Remember." Michael Caylo Baradi's "Cruising on Revisitation," and Igor dela Pena's "City (after Arturo Luz)" rounds out the poetry section. For essays, we have the pleasure of offering Sabrina Tom's "Life Stupefying," Priyanka Champaneri's "At The Table," and Julie Wan's "Deconstructing Babel" to round out our nonfiction segment. We have two notable interviews this season, from Randa Jarrar and Alexander Chee. What I really appreciate about working on Kartika is that this journal offers something refreshingly different from what you will read or receive anywhere else. You'll find a new perspective, authored by writers of different backgrounds and experiences. If you look at the
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contributor bios every issue, like I do, you'll find contributors ranging from professional writers to students, of varying ethnicities and locations. This inclusion is our greatest strength. Being "Asian," after all, means a multitude of things that one person or experience or written work can never epitomize. None of the greatest works ever written ever encapsulates everything, and each work offers their own revelations on the human psyche and the human soul. That is why journals such as this one are necessary, so that there is a place for writers and experiences of every stripe to have a soapbox from which to teach. In our inaugural issue, Sunny Woan wrote that The Kartika Review aspires to fill a void that no other journal since APA Journal has sought to address. Looking back one year later, I think that we can safely say that Kartika fulfills that goal. Here's looking forward to our second anniversary issue.
2008 PUSHCART PRIZE NOMINATIONS FICTION Qiyamat by Sheba Karim (Winter 2008) Cram Island by Kelly Luce (Summer 2008) The Search for Namable Things by Jimmy Chen (Spring 2008) POETRY Childhood Punishments by J. L. Koh (Winter 2008) There Is No There, There by Jason Koo (Summer 2008) CREATIVE NONFICTION Slaying Monsters by Gemma Guillermo Congratulations to our Nominees!
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Jimmy Chen ARTIST STATEMENT Comfort, suburbia’s most heralded attribute, is clarified in the manicured lawns, large houses, wide streets, and bright afternoon skies. For the majority, it is the optimal place to raise children, lead out safe lives, accrue wealth, and retire. Yet such prosaic pleasantries fall under scrutiny at night, as if the absence of light’s veil brings an end to the day’s charade. Night—only then does the endless sleep of our days come to life. MORTGAGE
Acrylics on Paper
Acrylics on Paper
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Acrylics on Paper
Childhood Punishments Jee Leong Koh Once, when I struck a boy, my father raised a belt in the small smelly bedroom my grandfather slept in. The studded leather strap snapped, and snapped, and the welts answered in a stinging song to the strong silent man. Not so when my angry mother rubbed my tongue with fresh cut chili for inventing fine new lies. The fruit stung me to blubber volubly my wrong and beg her face to stop. That sissy I despise and wonder whether the red chili’s hot dry mouth or the dark gleaming length of the worn leather strap poisoned far more the part of man the child would be. I confess, Father, I worship a man’s brute strength, and in the massive words I start, stutter, and stop have too little regard, Mother, for honesty.
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Qiyamat Sheba Karim My mother's driving makes me carsick. Ever since my father's accident, her foot goes back and forth between the accelerator and the brake pedal like a lover who can't make up her mind. "How was the train?" she asks me. "The man sitting across from me asked me if I was Muslim." "And what did you say?" "I said no." This is a lie. When he questioned me, I got up and walked down the aisle to another seat, ending that conversation but beginning another in my head. No, I am not Muslim. What are you, then? I am Sabeen Maqsood, a girl who hated her father, and now he is gone, and I have a hole in my heart where my hatred was. Qul! Speak! What does that make you, then? What does that make me? Guilt-‐ridden, hormone-‐ driven, a whore who fears submission. What more is there to say? My mother turns into a shopping plaza and drives toward an empty area of the parking lot. "Where are you going?" I ask. She slams on the brakes. "Bismillah!" I cry, my hand against the dashboard, braced for impact even though we were only going fifteen miles a hour in the first place and there was nothing to crash into. She smiles. "See? And you say you aren't Muslim." "Habit is different than faith." She shakes her head. "Not so different," she says. There is something amiss in our house, and I realize it is because my mother has moved the worn, brown leather chair that my father read Quran in most nights. He was a small man with a small voice, but when he read Quran, his off-‐key recitation followed us down hallways, through closed doors. I'd be relieving myself on the toilet and I'd hear it, and I wouldn't be able to go anymore. "When that man reads Quran I bet even Allah covers his ears," I told Shoaib once. Shoaib, who never questioned the rightness of the path even if he didn't always follow it
himself, said, "Would it kill you to have some respect for your own patria?" "You mean patriarch," I replied. I had little respect for my father. He was religious and boring, he distanced himself from me when I grew breasts, his eyes were cartoonishly big underneath his thick glasses, he couldn't tell a joke to save his life. My mother walks into the room. "What are you thinking?" she asks, cupping my waist with her hand, like she's going to lead me somewhere. "Why did you move Abba's chair?" I ask. "I had a dream the other night. Your father came and told me to move his chair into the sunlight." My mother retired from her pediatric practice a few months before my father's accident, and, when he died, I expected her to remain in bed, paralyzed by grief. Instead, she joined a knitting club, volunteered to teach a class at the Islamic school my father helped found, took up painting. From where I'm standing, I can see her easel through the window, right in the middle of the deck that faces the woods out back. "Are you ever going to paint anything but these woods?" I ask her. "These are his woods," she says in Urdu. "I won't stop painting till I'm able to paint it just right." Her hand shifts from my waist to my shoulder. “Listen," she says. "I need to ask you a favor." I can’t remember the last time my mother has asked me for a favor. "Ma, I can't move home," I tell her. "I don't want you to move home," my mother says. "I'm fine alone." "What is it, then?" She rises. "First we cook, then we'll talk." She goes to the kitchen and I step out onto the deck. The canvas resting on the easel is dotted with swirling green trees. I wish I could run inside it, find my father. Maybe, if the two of us are not human, if we are just two blobs of primary colors, we will finally be able to understand each other. Green and Yellow make blue. A wound is healed, in abstract. When I was young my father read to me at night. He'd knock softly on my door, as if I might be asleep, even though we both knew I was
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waiting for him. From the foot of my bed, he read the stories of the Prophets, Yunus in the belly of the whale, Ayub who continued to praise Allah even after his family was crushed by a falling roof and his body became infested with ulcers, Zakariya who was sawed in half. When I learned one by heart I'd tell it to my father, who tapped his hand against his thigh as if my stories were a kind of music. At the end, he'd say, "Tonight you have made your father very proud," and pull a lollipop out of his kurta pocket, the kind that last for an hour. I got a different flavor for each prophet, and I kept them in my bottom nightstand drawer. For some reason, it felt wrong to eat them. To my father, Islam was not just a religion but the context by which he viewed everything, a final filter for his senses. Rivers and mountains were not beautiful, they were beautiful by the glory of Allah; my mother’s food was not delicious, it was delicious by the grace of Allah. My father had few friends, dreaded making small talk. If his conversations didn't begin with religion, they ended with it. “Excellent work,” he said when I told him I won the math bowl in sixth grade. “But also remember that Prophet Muhammad said the best competition is in doing good deeds.” Once he tried to institute nightly Quranic discussion; first, he explained, he’d read a sura from the Quran to us, translate it, and then together we would analyze it. But listening to the Quran was not like listening to stories of Prophets, there was no easily digestible narrative involving violence, or miracles, or intrigue, just words we didn’t understand. In the middle of the sura Shoaib began to poke me in the back, and before it finished we were on the ground, fighting. “Enough,” my father cried. He rarely raised his voice so when he did we listened. “I once knew a little boy," he told us. "This boy could sit still with me and watch birds for hours. Why can't you see the virtue of stillness?" “Where is this little boy now?" I asked. My father looked down at the Quran in his lap. “He died.” “Probably died of boredom,” Shoaib said, and started chasing me down the hall. From then on my father decided to enforce religion with frequent reminders, delivered in his quiet voice but firm in their message. Almost every day he reminded Shoaib and me of the two angels that stayed with you from birth until death, one over your left shoulder, one over your right. The one on your right recorded all of your good deeds, the one on your left recorded all of your bad ones, and on the Day of Judgment, they 15
would present Allah with their detailed record of your life. “I cannot watch you all of the time, but remember that the angels are writing down everything,” he’d say, pointing at our shoulders with his index fingers. It was meant to be a gentle gesture, but it looked like he was aiming guns at the angels, and, whenever he did it, I imagined them shielding their faces with their wings. My mother and I are eating the lamb pasanda we've just cooked. “Have you spoken to Shoaib?” my mother asks. I am the one who named my brother Shoaib, after a prophet whose story was boring but whose name I had always liked. “A few weeks ago.” My mother doesn't ask me to call him more often; she knows that we are not like that, Shoaib and I, that we don’t contact each other unless necessary. She smoothes back her hair. As a child I helped her braid it, twisting the thick strands together all the way down to the base of her spine. Now her hair is becoming less and less, tiny patches of pinkish scalp visible beneath the black and white. "You know what I was thinking about the other day?" she says. "Remember when one of my patients gave me those rum balls for Christmas and you ate three of them and got drunk?" "More like dizzy and sick," I correct her. "And your father got so mad. 'You think she would have the good sense to warn us what was in them,' he said. You know what I did that night? I snuck downstairs and ate a rum ball because I wanted to see what it tasted like. It was so awful I spit it right out." When my mother laughs, her eyebrows arch like she's surprised, like the laughter has snuck up on her. I didn't notice this until recently, just like I didn't notice that she has hair on her big toes but not the others, that she hesitates before pressing the play button on the answering machine. "Of course you didn't tell Abba," I say. "It was one of the only things I never told him," she says. She is lucky, for having said everything she wanted to say. She reaches over and takes my hand. “I still get calls once in a while. Given your reputation, they're mostly divorced, but some of them seem nice."
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“No.” I know my mother will not ask, so I tell her. “Because I don’t want to, not because I’m with someone.” She makes no effort to hide her relief. “You should think about it. It’s very hard to be alone.” "But you're alone, and you seem happy enough." "Do I? So this is happiness then, to live by yourself, to see your children twice a month?" "But Abba used to be so controlling," I say. "Controlling?" She shakes her head. "Your father never made me do something I didn't want to do." "He never let me do anything I wanted to do." "That's because everything you wanted to do was un-‐Islamic," she says. "And where did it get you, all of this rebelliousness? Has it brought you happiness?" I don't talk to my mother about my feelings, but she knows I'm unhappy, that at night I stare at the brick wall that faces the window of my studio apartment and think that tomorrow I will proceed forward, I will quit my paralegal job and apply to grad school, I will plan a trip somewhere, I will move to an apartment where you can see the sky, I will visit my father's grave, and then the morning comes and I'm greeted by the same brick wall, it's immobility a taunting reminder of my own. She gets up, washes her hands at the sink, dries them carefully with a towel. "There is something I have to tell you,” she says. “About your father.” In middle school I started to question everything. Why would the Quran, the unaltered word of Allah, say it was permissible for a man to beat his wife (lightly) with his fists? Why was the testimony of a man worth that of two women? None of the answers I received, from my father or the teachers of religion class at the mosque—that beating lightly meant hardly touching the woman at all, or that the verse was improperly translated, or that women’s testimony was worth less because women were more emotional and thus more likely to forget details—satisfied me. My faith started to crack, and then puberty blew it apart. At fifteen, I began to masturbate, to fantasies of being kidnapped by men of ill repute, pirates or escaped convicts, their lips swollen with lust. I'd cry 17
half-‐heartedly for Allah to save me, but it was no use, they'd take my virginity, and my father couldn't get upset because it wasn't my fault. This was the same year I altered my skirt. The uniform of the all-‐girls private high school I attended was a plaid skirt of mid-‐calf length, but all of the students hemmed their skirts so that they hit well above the knee. I had two skirts, and changed into the short one as soon as I got to school. Other than this baring of skin and my nightly ministrations, my waking life remained chaste; I went to school, I came home, I stayed in and studied, but my father somehow knew. He started to leave gifts in my room, a gold pendant with the word Allah in Arabic, treatises on the Prophet’s way of life. I would catch him eyeing me during dinner, trying to read me, to gage the strength of my faith, his pupils the size of dimes underneath his glasses. “Is there something on my face?” I asked him one night. “Sabeen, don’t be rude,” my mother said. We all stopped eating except Shoaib, who refused to get involved in any conflict that didn’t concern him directly. “Tell him to stop looking at me like that, like he thinks I’ve got some kind of mark,” I said. “What are you saying?” my mother asked. “She’s only sensing my concern,” my father said. “But I have faith in my daughter. She knows Right and Wrong.” My father always phrased it like this, as if Right and Wrong were good friends of mine. The month before I had decided they were lovers and given them a theme song. Right and Wrong. Bang a gong. Get it on. The spring of my senior year, I fell for James Poplock. He liked me because I laughed at all of the appropriate moments during his stories about his summer antics at the Jersey shore, and I liked that he had so many stories. James went to the all-‐boys prep down the road and we made out in his car before school whenever we could. He tasted like talcum powder and cigarettes. I hadn’t planned to go much further than that, until one day my friend Rachel told me she was having people over for a Friday happy hour, and offered me her guest room if I could weasel my way into attending. I told my parents I was working on a history presentation with Rachel that constituted one third of our final grade
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and would be home by eight. Rachel bought me my first set of proper lingerie, a dark purple lacy bra and matching underwear. Rachel’s guest room had burnt orange shag carpet that I squeezed between my toes for courage as I took off my shirt. My father walked into the room just as James was about to kiss me, both of his hands squeezing my breasts. He stood in the doorway, his giant eyes blinking rapidly, as if he hoped that would make James disappear. “Your nana died. Your mother's upset,” he said. “Get dressed.” James bolted, my father stepping aside to let him pass. I couldn’t remember where I had stashed my change of clothes, so I reached for my school uniform. As I dressed my father pressed his palms against the wall like it was he who had just been caught, not I. We left the room together. The music was off and Rachel was at the bottom of the stairs, the entire sequence of events apparent in her stricken expression. She had lied, said I wasn’t there, but somehow he had known, had sensed my sin, and she could not stop him. On the ride home I felt nauseous, dizzy, but I tightened my body, kept still. “How did Nana die?” I asked. “At his home in Rawalpindi,” my father said. "In his sleep. Very peaceful." Neither of us spoke after that. I prepared my possible defenses. He pressured me into it. I promise to be good. I promise to pray five times a day. Just please let me go to Columbia. But when we reached home, he didn’t turn off the engine. I thought that maybe, he'd let it go, he'd allow us both to forget what had happened, on the tacit understanding that I would never, ever do it again. Besides, how could he even speak of it? My father was incapable of verbalizing anything related to sex. "I'm sorry," I said. He said nothing, only stared ahead with this strange intensity, like there was a divine message written on the windshield. I waited for a second, then ran into the house and up to my room to change into jeans. I imagined him sitting in the garage, inhaling carbon monoxide, trying to forget. But even then, though I felt bad about disappointing him, I didn’t feel bad about what I had done. I knew I would do it again, and again, and again. If my father had tried to see inside me then, he would have found more desire than regret. He would have found Wrong humping Right. He would have found me disgusting.
I heard my father downstairs, calling for my mother. My mother came in first, pale face, red eyes, and I remembered that her father had just died. My father was behind her, clenching and unclenching his jaw, his hands pulling at the sides of his pants, stretching out the fabric. "What did you do?" my mother asked. “Unbutton her shirt," my father commanded. “I want you to see who your daughter really is.” “Mustafa,” my mother said. “Do as I'm telling you. Unbutton it.” My mother sat down next to me, hiding my body from view. I tried to make eye contact with her to so it'd be easier, but she didn't lift her gaze, and instead focused on her fingers undoing my shirt. My mother kept her nails clean and short and wore white cotton undergarments. She'd never understand a penchant for purple lace. My mother's fingers were trembling, and when they accidentally brushed my skin she recoiled like she had been burnt. After the third button I couldn’t take it anymore. I pushed her aside and pulled my shirt over my head. My mother hid her face with her hands. My father's eyes had grown so grotesquely large under his glasses the veins in them looked as if they were about to split open. “Here I am,” I said. “Get a good look?” My father yelled something I couldn’t understand. He rushed over to me, shoving my mother out of the way when she tried to block him. I put my arms over my face, but instead of slapping me he grabbed the center of my bra and ripped it off. I backed into the corner of my bed, my hands flattening my breasts. “You are no better than a prostitute!” he screamed, waving his fist in the air like a mad despot, the bra crushed inside it. “No better than a whore!” Then he bent over and spit on my face. I thought I was screaming, but no sound was emerging from my mouth. My father crumpled, the bra pressed to his forehead like a garish handkerchief. The despot, defeated, ruined. My mother embraced him and I pulled the blanket over my bare chest. I had somehow won this round, but it was miserable victory. I had broken my father's heart, I had forever tarnished myself in his eyes, I had pissed
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on all of our happy memories. My father’s saliva had trickled down to the edge of my chin and I wiped it off with my naked shoulder. "I hate you," I told him. "I've always hated you." "You want to tell me something about Abba?" I repeat. It will no doubt be some reminder of how much he loved me, something to add to the nocturnal ferociousness of my guilt. "I'm too old to battle," my mother says. "I need you to be generous." "As if you ever battled," I say. "You were practically Abba's cheering squad." "Would you like me to tell you or not?" she asks. Her jaw has tensed, but it doesn't matter. My mother has neither bark nor bite. I nod. “Before our marriage was arranged, your father was married to someone else,” she says. “To an American woman. Someone he met in graduate school.” “Abba? Married to a white woman? I don’t understand.” “They were together for two years, but it was too difficult, to be with someone from another culture. There was a child,” she says. “What? Are you saying—" My mother smiles, shakes her head. “It’s nothing like that. It was her son, from someone else. But your father was very fond of him.” “When did he tell you this?" "A long time ago. It was hard for him to talk about it. He had made a mistake, learned a painful lesson, and he didn't like to think about that time of his life." "So instead he lied to us?" Who are you, then? I am a girl whose father was a liar, a fake, a fraud. "Sabeen," my mother says. "Your father did what he thought would be best for you, always. He loved you very much." But it's not his love that I've spent years questioning. It's mine. My final semester of college, on my last visit home before my father died, I told my parents about my boyfriend Krish. “I love him,” I said.
“You know we can’t accept this,” my father said. I waited for him to say more, perhaps bring up the Day of Judgment, but he backed into his chair, as if his leather throne might give him more authority. “I’m not a Muslim anymore. I’m going to convert,” I said. “I’m becoming Ba’hai. We both are.” This was not true, but it struck me as a nice religion to choose, peace-‐loving, no stringent rules. My father winced, put his arm over his face like my words had blinded him. “Do you mean this?” “I’ve given it a lot of thought,” I said. “I don’t believe in Islam, and Krish and I are going to get married after we graduate.” We had no plans to marry, but I said it anyway, to convey the seriousness of my intent. “I don’t think you should come back to this house,” my father said. “Not until you have regained your iman.” He said this like it was a temporary lapse, as if I had simply lost my faith at a poker game and could easily win it back. There was no anger, just a matter-‐of-‐fact statement of conditions. Behind him, my mother nodded, but I could tell she was worried. Though she agreed with my father’s general principles, she didn’t have his will. She would continue to speak to me, call and ask me to reconsider. “Remember my words,” my father continued. “At first it may seem simple, that you are proving your parents wrong, but slowly, it will come—the misunderstandings, the confusion, the disagreements, until it has spread like a cancer, and your only hope for happiness is a return to your family, your culture, your religion. Those are the things that support a marriage, not youthful love. That is all I have to say to you.” The next morning Shoaib dropped me off at the train station. Since becoming a collegiate squash champion a few months before, he had started to lecture me. “Why did you have to tell them this now?” he said. “It’s not like you’re marrying this guy tomorrow. Couldn’t you wait?” “Why should I lie?” I said. “What if they refuse to pay for grad school?” he asked. “I’ll take out loans,” I said. I had an answer for everything, back then. I've been cleaning the kitchen table for so long it's practically shining. The more I think of my father's secret, the harder I wipe, as if I just clean
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enough I might see them, my father and the family he hid from me, reflected in the glass. My mother takes the paper towels away from me. "Why don't you say anything?" "What were they like?" "Who?" "The wife and kid, who else?" "We never discussed it. He didn't like to talk of it, and I respected that." My mother, the all-‐passive, the all-‐respectful. Her husband has a secret past and she lets it be. I'd swing it around my head, dig my nails into it until it bled. "Don't you think that was hypocritical?" "No," she says. "I think it was human." But isn't it also human to want to kiss a boy, to hold his hand? To get drunk, to dance with abandon? My mother will tell me this is different, that my father didn't violate his religion when he married a Christian woman, that his actions caused pain only to himself. “You still haven’t told me what the favor is,” I say. “Oh, yes, the favor,” she says, like it is some distant relative she had forgotten. "Before the accident, your father ran into a colleague from graduate school, someone who had known him during his first marriage. From this colleague, you father found out that his first wife had ovarian cancer. One day in the mail, there was a card. Your father had sent it to the boy but it had been returned by the post office. I put it away and forget about it and last week I found it again.” She opens one of the kitchen drawers and pulls out an envelope. “I thought I’d give it to you to mail. You might be able to find the boy’s information through the computer, right? I put it a new envelope, with a stamp.” “Why didn’t you just give it to Shoaib?” I ask. “He wouldn’t even have asked any questions.” “Because I thought it would be better for you to do it.” “What does it say?” “I don't know. It felt wrong to read it. But I'm sure he's sending his condolences for his mother,” my mother says. "Why not just send it to her, then?"
She shakes her head. "I don't think it ended well with Pamela." Pamela. The First Wife. The card is sealed, and the name Gavin Michaud is written across it in my mother’s neat cursive. But when I try to take it from her, she grips it harder. "Promise me you won't read it, either," she says. "I won't," I say, and she lets go. On the train I think about opening it, but I can't bring myself to do it, to betray my parent's trust yet again. I wonder what my father would write to a boy who was now a man, whose existence he never publicly acknowledged. To Gavin, whose mother may be dying. It seems like another life when your mother and I were married, but, when I heard of her illness, I remembered many of the happy times we had together. I wish her a full recovery, and I hope you are well, also. Remember when we used to watch birds together? Neither of my children takes any interest in nature, but you always understood the beauty of God's creations. I hold the card up. I try angling it in different directions against the light, but it’s no use; I can’t see inside. After my father’s funeral, my mother and I sat in the women’s section of the mosque, surrounded by aunties: my relatives, my mother’s friends. My mother cried and cried, and I kept my arm around her, stiff. The aunties sat cross legged, open Qurans in their laps, and whispered about me. They thought I couldn’t hear them, but in fact that was all I could hear, their words echoing inside my skull. The aunties who did not know of the estrangement between my father and me whispered, “Look at Sabeen, she is acting so strong.” She is strong, she is strong. The aunties who did know of our estrangement whispered, “Look at Sabeen, she is feeling regret.” She feels regret, she feels regret. I stared down at the backs of my hands, saw tiny dark spots on my skin I had never noticed before. Look at Sabeen, she is growing old. She grows old, she grows old. When I get back there’s a voicemail from Krish. Just checking in, he says. We broke up a year after graduation, though I never told my parents this. I started dating him because he was cute and half-‐black, half-‐Indian, and thus extra forbidden. It was doomed from the beginning, and I see now that love motivated by rebellion is like a hollow cane, easy to
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brandish and easily breakable. I brandished it as long as I could, then snapped it in two. I delete the message and turn on my computer. It takes me ten seconds to find Gavin Michaud on the Internet. He hosts an open mic night every Thursday at a bar in Brooklyn. There’s even a picture of him, brown hair pulled back in a pony tail and bright blue eyes. Now that I know what he looks like, I can imagine him as a child, and for the rest of the week, in the shower, on my way to work, before I fall asleep at night, I conjure up scenes from my father’s past life. My father who has married a white person lives like a white person, throwing around a baseball with Gavin in the backyard, making hotdogs on the grill and blueberry pancakes for breakfast, embracing his wife in broad daylight, with Gavin tucked in between them. He does not even look like my father. The glasses are gone; he has contacts and is clean-‐shaven, he wears bell bottoms and aviator sunglasses, he never mentions Allah. He is finishing his thesis so he spends a lot of time in the study, writing, and Pamela, who is a little chunky but pretty, kisses him on the head when she delivers his cups of tea. In most of what I imagine, they are happy. Gavin and my father watch birds and afterward Gavin draws them with color pencils. The three of them sing songs. I don't know when it all starts to go wrong. Maybe Pamela cooks bacon one day and my father yells at her. Maybe his mother comes to visit and whispers poison in his ear. Maybe it is Pamela who becomes distant, maybe my father stops wearing his contacts and she can't stand the sight of his giant eyes. But slowly things start to change, and my father turns from Pamela to Allah, and from Allah to us, but I stick with the beginning, when things were still good, because I could have a conversation with this blueberry pancakes and baseball man, I could make him understand. One night, I insert myself into the scene. He is hard at work, scribbling notes in margins, and I appear, hovering over his desk, cross-‐legged like a genie. He drops his pen in surprise. "I am your unborn daughter," I tell him. "I will do things you don't approve of. You'll even spit on me, once. I'll tell you I hate you but I won't really mean it." "It's all right," he says. "You're young, young people never listen to their elders—look at me. My parents didn't want me to marry a white woman, but I did anyway. I understand." We hug, but then he pulls back and looks at me. "But you don't look like you could be Pamela's and my daughter," he says. I don't respond. He realizes the future. I disappear.
The summer after he spat on me, my father's bird watching became an everyday activity. Even my father didn't like birds that much, and my mother told Shoaib to follow him, see what it was he really did amidst those trees. “He sits on a stump,” Shoaib reported. “He holds onto the binoculars with both hands but he never lifts them from his neck. And he just looks at the ground, not the sky.” My father walked in behind us. “It’s called tafakkuur," he said. "It means to reflect on something deeply, in great detail. Please allow me this time alone.” As if we would ever refuse him. I assumed my father was reflecting on the Day of Judgment, preparing diligently for his first chance at a dialogue with Allah. He had started asking us at dinner, “When you hear Allah's voice saying Qul! on the Day of Judgment, what will you tell Him?” My mother and Shoaib humored him with their responses, but I refused. It was a stupid question. At that point, what would there be left to say? My father forgave me for James Poplock after he returned from one of these tafakkur sessions. I was eating waffles in the kitchen. There had been a sudden downpour outside and he was wet, his nose red from the cold, his thinning hair matted to one side, his glasses fogged. He looked like a homeless man who had wandered into somebody's house. I wanted to enjoy this, but couldn’t. It was easier to hate him when he didn’t look so weak. "The hawks will be migrating soon," he said. "How exciting for you." “I forgive you,” he said. “But it is Allah’s forgiveness that is most important.” "Well, if Allah is really all-‐forgiving, all-‐merciful, I'll be just fine," I said, turning my back to him. Maybe, in offering me this forgiveness, he had considered his own secret past, realized that we all make mistakes. Maybe, if he had been honest, we could have found a piece of common ground, however small. But this possibility could only exist through the rosy tint of retrospect. If my father had actually told me the truth then, I would have used it against him. I would have flung it in his face every time we fought. And whatever common ground we might have found, it would never have been enough to overcome our differences of belief.
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And yet. "I should have said something," I say aloud. I'm speaking to the left angel, whose pen is always poised. I used to talk to both of them all the time. I’d say good morning, explain my philosophy, rationalize my behavior, tell them I was a good person and that was what mattered, or that it was okay that I stole candy from Melanie’s desk because she was mean and deserved it. Of course I knew it wouldn’t make a difference to them what I said; they were beyond influence, these solemn-‐faced record keepers. In high school I started ignoring them all together, denied their existence, labeled them a metaphor, a scare tactic. Call it guilt, call it madness, but since my father’s death, I have begun to sense their movements above me, invisible depressions in the air caused by their footsteps. Sometimes I feel their gaze, the assessment of my thoughts by their piercing, all-‐seeing eyes. Sometimes I swear I can smell them, a strange musk of leather and sandalwood. Sometimes, I can hear them scribbling. I arrive an hour before the open mic is supposed to start. It's a dive, the kind of place where you hope for the best when you open the door to the bathroom. I take a seat at the empty side of the bar. There's a couple at the other end, playing with their cell phones, and an old man in the middle, reading a book bound in brown leather, the same color as my father's chair. It's a sign. Gavin is behind the bar. He's cut his hair short, but there’s no mistaking his eyes. They’re much lighter than his picture, almost clear. I like them even more; surely these kind of eyes will be able to see a long way backwards. “What can I get you?” he asks, tossing a dish cloth over his shoulder. "A Guinness," I say. I don’t even like beer, but for some reason I want Gavin to think I'm the kind of girl who drinks beer, who hangs out in places like these. "I haven't seen you here before, have I?" he asks as he pours. I shake my head. "I hear the open mic here is good." "Depends on the night," Gavin says. He sets the beer down in front of me. I'm too nervous to begin the script I've prepared. "I'm Gavin," he says. "Sabeen." Gavin nods, and I offer him my hand. I want to feel the hand that once touched my father. It's rough against my skin and gives nothing away. Gavin is looking at me. He has a long neck and long fingers. He looks like someone who'd play a trombone. If my father had
gotten with Pamela earlier, Gavin could have been his son. I would be his half-‐sister. "Are you sure you haven't been in here before?" Gavin says. "Something about you seems familiar." I have my father's square jaw, and the same deep indent in the middle of his upper lip. Gavin must remember. "My full name is Sabeen Maqsood. My father is Mustafa Maqsood." I wait, for the flash of recognition, the sudden flood of memories. "Who?" he says. "Mustafa Maqsood. He was married to your mother, a long time ago." He nods. "Oh, okay," he says. "My mother had a picture of the two of them. You have the same eyes as him, right?" "No, I don't. I have his chin." "Maybe." Gavin shrugs. "I barely remember. So, what brings you here? I'm guessing you didn't come for the open mic night." "I came to see you," I say. "Well, now you're seeing me. What can I do for you?" I take the card out of my purse. "I found this in his drawer. I guess when he sent it to you it got returned, so I put it in a new envelope and decided to deliver it personally." Gavin looks at the back and front of the envelope, but he doesn't open it like I'd hoped. "Thanks," he says. "Though I can't imagine why he'd want to get in touch after so long." "He always remembered you fondly." Except for the part where he pretended that you never existed. I wonder if Gavin would take offense if he knew how my father had tried to erase him from his history. "And someone told him about your mother's illness, and I think he wanted to send his condolences." Gavin doesn't respond. "How is your mother?" "She passed away," he says. "I'm sorry." "How's your father?"
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"He's dead, too." When I say this I smile, because it is weirdly funny, that here is a stranger who could have been my brother, and now the people that connect us are both dead. "I'm sorry to hear that," he says. I'm still smiling and he takes a step back like he thinks I might be crazy, and I do feel a little crazy, like I just might start crying and pulling my hair and begging him to please tell me stories of the father I never had. I force an appropriate expression, sympathy and empathy and sanity. "It sucks, doesn't it, having a parent die? Makes you feel so fucking old," he says. "Could I ask you something?" I say. "Do you remember anything about him?" "I was only four when they split up, so no, not really. Before first grade everything is pretty much a blank." He looks at the card again. I wish I could pick him up, hold him upside down and shake him until memories of my father come tumbling out. "But you must remember something, anything?" "Let's see." He stretches his neck as he thinks. "I do remember that he liked birds. And, actually, there was some jazz song he used to listen to a lot, I think. Yeah. He liked jazz. Also, my mother used to make some Indian dessert once in a while and I think he taught her how to make it. But other than that, I don't know," he says. "My mother and him were married for less than two years. I was so young." "Did she ever tell you anything about him?" "She never talked about him much." "Do you know why they split up?" "I think my mother cheated on him," he says. "She cheated on her next husband too, so please don't take it personally." "Is that all she said?" I ask. Gavin purses his lips, his lips that are long and thin like his fingers, lips that must have once kissed my father. He shakes his head and I'm sure there is something more, but he won't tell me, because it is something bad, and he is too kind to say it. But whatever it is, I doubt it is too detailed. His mother seems to have erased my father as he erased her. "Do you remember which jazz song he liked?" "No," Gavin says. "You know, I didn't start listening to jazz until I was a teenager, but now I wonder if it might have been because of your father, 29
he used to play that song when I was so young, and that must have made it part of my psyche, you know? And now I play trumpet in a jazz band, and I bet I've got him to thank." Another customer arrives, takes a seat next to the old man in the middle. Gavin signals to him with his index finger. "I have to get back to work," he says, "but here's a flyer for my next show." I thank him and leave. It seems an unfair exchange, a handwritten card from my father for a flyer for his band, but you can't blame people for what they're unable to remember. How much should you blame them, then, for what they chose to forget? The used cd store in Greenwich Village is empty except for the woman behind the register. I start browsing the jazz section. But I know nothing about jazz, and I don't know what my father would have listened to. He only played religious music in the car, Quranic recitations or qawwali music or songs praising Prophet Muhammad. Did he like mainstream jazz? Duke Ellington? Or were his tastes more obscure? "Are you all right?" the woman asks me. She's left the register and is standing right next to me, and I realize there are tears in my eyes. "I'm not sure what to get," I tell her. "I have no idea what my father would have liked." She selects seven cds that she says is a good sampling of the genre. At home, I put one in and pace around my apartment as I listen. I cannot sense my father in these notes. By the end of the first cd, I've realized it's no use. I won't find him in this music. It occurs to me then that Gavin might have been lying, that my father never even listened to jazz. But I play the cds anyway, all seven, in honor of the father I didn’t know, who was once in love with a white woman, who carried his secrets in silence, like heavy, hidden tumors in his heart. Tomorrow, I will visit his grave. I will pray for him, and when the voices say Qul! I will speak.
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City (After Arturo Luz) Rodrigo V. Dela Peña
Where are you hidden among towers and spires, labyrinthine buildings scraping the sky, obelisks, citadels, pyramids erected on the rough concrete ground; Where are you in cross sections of shoebox malls, gilded forts, astrodomes and coliseums, condominiums with antennae zigzagging through the smog; Where could you be amidst a colossal tangle of palisades and pillars, in streamlined geometries of transnational empires?
Deconstructing Babel Julie Wan I. Growing up in a Chinese family in North America was like living in a war zone. Before my sister and I started elementary school in Canada, my parents were already preparing themselves to battle the Anglicism that would inevitably creep into our Chinese. They had their strategy all planned out. They knew they couldn’t keep the enemy out, so they worked instead to prevent a complete takeover. They decided they would only speak Cantonese with us at home. Their frontline defense held out only a few short years. The invasion began as soon as I started kindergarten. I picked up English quickly and started speaking it with my older cousins and teaching it to my younger sister. My parents, along with my other aunts and uncles, fought back by enforcing their ‘no English’ rule in the house. But the opposition was strong. My sister and I began watching English programs on television and reading English books. We started making Canadian friends. My parents decided that it was time to launch a full-‐fledged attack. When I entered the first grade, they sent me to Chinese class after school three times a week. Apparently, they had allies: all the other Chinese parents in the community. At some point in time, these immigrants had all persuaded Toronto’s elementary schools to hold extracurricular language classes for Chinese children. It was the perfect form of retaliation. The teachers in Chinese class taught us how to sing Chinese songs and play Chinese chess. They taught us to recite poems by Li Bai and Zhang Ji. They fed us lotus seed and mooncake. And every year, they drilled into us stories about the Lunar New Year and the Mid-‐Autumn Festival. If that weren’t enough, our Chinese church also started weekly language classes that my parents made me attend. The teachers there even came up with a clever form of punishment. They placed a glass jar at the front of the room on the teacher’s desk. They made us bring pennies to class, and we had to deposit a penny in the jar every time we let an English word slip from our mouths. Pretty soon, we were bringing bags full of
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pennies to class. We joked that by the end of the year the teacher could probably collect enough money to buy us all ice cream. In all of the classes, though, the teachers’ most powerful weapon was the writing. They forced us to learn Chinese characters by copying each one out in square boxes, repeating stroke after stroke, top to bottom, filling notebook after notebook. They told us that there was no way to learn it except by repetition. By repeating, we could internalize the movement into our muscles and engrain the characters into our souls. I was too young to know what they were doing. They were teaching us more than writing: They were teaching us to think like Chinese people. All of this ended when I turned fourteen. The year I began high school, we left Canada and moved to Arizona. There were no Chinese programs on television, no China Town, no Chinese school. The Chinese at school were Chinese Americans, many of whom didn’t speak or write the language. I wondered if the battle was over or if my parents would simply come up with a new strategy. Neither turned out to be true. With fewer allies, my parents were retiring from battle. I was now older and had a firmer grasp of both languages, so they turned the responsibility over to me. Now I would have to maintain my own native language, I would have to guard my own soul. When I look back, I realize that my parents had fought all this time to keep my Chinese skills alive so that one day I would be able to make a choice for myself. I had been wrong all along. That I’d learned more English didn’t meant that my parents had lost. In fact, my parents had always won because the real enemy was never the English language. It was the loss of our Chinese. II. For me, Chinese has always been the language of the home. It is the language of the food I eat: dim sum, chow mein, chop suey, ginseng, kumquat, oolong, leechee. It is the language in which my parents scold me. It is the language in which I argue with my sister. It is the language of dinner conversations spoken over steaming bowls of rice. Ultimately, Chinese is the language of intimacy. I’ve become attuned to the sounds of the nine tonal contours of Cantonese. At times, they can act like tones of a scale to form rich combinations. I’ve become familiar with the rise and fall of the inflections too. At the ends of sentences, fluent Cantonese speakers often attach extra syllables, which actually
have little meaning of their own, but add texture to the language and make the phrases flow. My favorites are ah and la, which I can add to almost anything: Do you want to go ah? Why not ah? Come on la. Just come with me la. English, then, has always been the language of the public world, of school, of the media, of people on the street. It is the language of intellect: "During photosynthesis in green plants, light energy is captured and used to convert water, carbon dioxide, and minerals into oxygen and energy-rich organic compounds." It is the language of abstract ideas: “The theory that knowledge is recollection rests on the belief that the soul is not only eternal but also preexistent. The conception of the tripartite soul holds that the soul consists of reason, appetite, and spirit.” Over the years, I come to think of Chinese and English not as separate languages, but more as codes that I adopt depending on their function and place of use. They are like different forms of dress for different occasions. I speak Chinese and English almost as any speaker in any one language alters her speech to fit a particular occasion—slang with peers, polite language with acquaintances, and formal diction in writing. III. There is a biblical account of the origin of languages, and people often use it as a morality tale about the pride of humankind. But it is also a story about language—about how one language was lost and how many were gained, about how language can be empowering and inhibiting at the same time: “Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other… ‘Come let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.’ But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. The Lord said, ‘If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand
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each other.’ So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.” Genesis 11:1-‐9 Let’s imagine for a moment that the whole world did speak one language. The story of Babel takes place right after the flood, and only Noah and his family members are left to repopulate the earth. Perhaps their descendents shared one common speech. Perhaps in building the tower, men were isolated for so long that the speech of different people groups began to change. Perhaps a catastrophic mistake then occurred, and a small dispute led to even greater misunderstanding. At this point, the altered speech of the people prevented them from ever agreeing again. Perhaps this was how the entire project collapsed. Told in this way, the story centers around comprehension and cooperation arrived at through the use of one language. When differences became apparent, there was a loss not only of understanding, but also of unity. The people dispersed, leaving the tower behind to crumble. In exploring the meaning of the Tower of Babel, we unearth also the meaning of language—of its ability not just to inhibit, but also to divide and to disperse. Perhaps we could create a better story if the whole world came together again with one common goal in mind—to tear down the tower in recognition of the differences that distinguish us. IV. Throughout my childhood, I always felt that my parents were worse at English than any other Chinese parents in North America. They made little progress over the years, but eventually I realized it was because the other parents practiced English with their children, and my parents practiced Chinese instead with us. As a result, my fluency in English empowered me, while their lack of fluency inhibited them. We tried to compensate in other ways. I became a kind of cultural liaison for them. They made me do all the ordering at restaurants. They made me get out at gas stations and ask for directions. My parents wanted me to learn not only the language, but also how to behave and interact with 35
people in the English-‐speaking world. They sent me out and expected me to learn the social codes and the unspoken conventions of our society. Unaccompanied and unguided, I floundered. I wanted to help them, but I was afraid myself. I dreaded talking to bank tellers and store clerks and even telemarketers. The problem was that my parents wanted me to teach them things that I wanted to learn from them. Eventually, I found one small means of escape. Whenever we went out for dinner, I told my sister we had to insist on eating at a Chinese restaurant. I had discovered that at familiar places like these, my parents and I finally assumed our proper roles. They became the ones in charge, ordering with confidence and ease. They knew the etiquette. They knew the conventions. They could engage in conversation with the waiter, they could express complaints tactfully, they could order meals to be cooked exactly as they wanted. I savored those moments because, no matter how brief, they were the times when I could finally resume the role of a child. V. Shakespeare once wrote, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Linguists agree, claiming that language is arbitrary. Many times, the word we use to name an object has little or no relationship with the object itself. A door is a door whether we call it door in English, porte in French, men in Chinese or tür in German. In fact, a door would still be a door if we called it a table. This arbitrary nature of language suggests that behind language itself there must be something—whether tangible or intangible—to which our words refer. At some point in the way we process language, we encode and decode concepts into words and words into concepts. Based on this idea, Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist and linguist at Harvard, suggests that people may not actually think in any particular language at all. Rather, they think in a language of thought, a mental language that Pinker calls mentalese. Pinker notes that in the last few decades, scientists have discovered that people actually think in images. A study conducted in the 60’s showed that in Mensa (a society of people with unusually high IQs), 97 percent of the members reported to thinking in vivid imagery. Writers are often inspired by images. C. S. Lewis claims that his book, The Lion, the Witch,
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and the Wardrobe, began with an image of a fawn holding an umbrella and several parcels in the middle of the woods in winter. Pinker also lists a number of well-‐known artists and scientists who, when inspired, think not in words but in visual images. Among these is writer Joan Didion, who says that her ideas don’t begin with a character or a plot but with a mental picture. In the area of art, the modern sculptor James Surls envisions working with sculptures in his mind while lying on a couch listening to music. Scientists like Nikola Tesla and his electrical motor and generator, Friedrich Kekulé and his benzene ring, James Watson and Francis Crick and their DNA double helix—all of them claim that these ideas came to them in images. Finally, Pinker invokes the great Albert Einstein, who envisioned himself riding on a beam of light and looking back at a clock, or dropping a coin from a falling elevator. Considering all this then, language merely serves as a vehicle to thought and imagery. It is but a formality, a system adopted to permit human interaction and to facilitate verbal exchanges necessary for survival in society. It is simply a medium of expression we use to communicate the thoughts and the ideas in our minds. It is only a tool, yet no one can deny what a powerful tool it is. VI. Suppose that language, like sight, were a faculty of the human body. This is not entirely improbable, considering the generally accepted theory in modern linguistics that language is an instinct, an innate ability with which all human beings are born. Scientists have actually discovered various language disorders that link the ability to use language to biological and neurological factors. In an essay entitled “Seeing,” Annie Dillard describes people blind from birth who are suddenly able to see again. After a cataract operation, these patients experienced all kinds of difficulty adjusting to their new sight. They had no concept of space, distance, or depth perception. For some, the transition proved so taxing that they became depressed, preferring to shut their eyes in refusal to use their newly gained ability. They would rather revert to their old ways of interacting with the world through touch and sound. On the other hand, there were some who accepted the change and delighted in the sight of what we take for granted as simple things—things such as a tree or a human hand.
If language were a faculty of the human body, suppose that we were born with a language gene. If this gene were impaired from birth, those affected would have no capacity for grammar—not even in sign language. These people would also have no ability to match words to actual objects or ideas, so that retention of vocabulary is impossible. This impairment would only affect the ability to use language, though. It would not affect a person’s ability to think. Imagine that, like the blind man who develops increased sensitivity in his other senses, these language-‐impaired people discover how to rely on gestures, actions, facial expressions, and even visual depictions to help them interact with others. These people learn not through verbal or written instruction, but through experience, through personal interaction with the world around them. In spite of the obvious linguistic handicap, these people gain instead a heightened sensitivity to concepts presented visually—both actual concepts observable in the world and theoretical concepts depicted through images (such as Surls’s artistic sculptures or Watson and Crick’s DNA double helix). Suppose also that one day, surgeons discover how to restore this language gene. Similar to the cataract patients who had to learn space, size, and depth perception, these people with a new capacity for language now face the daunting task of learning vocabulary and grammar. Unlike the adult who learns a foreign language, these patients have no prior experience with any kind of language at all. Suddenly, they must learn to think not in an abstract way, but in a linear way. Not only do they need to master concepts such as word order and temporality, they also need to understand nuances in language like tone and connotation. I imagine that such a task could prove so overwhelming that, like the cataract patients who lapsed into depression and returned to their old way of life, these new language learners might also choose to revert back to a state where communication, though perhaps less effective, was at least manageable. I imagine too that, as some of the cataract patients welcomed their new vision and experienced joy in seeing simple things around them, some language learners might also come to appreciate the precision and the efficiency of words. They might discover that mastering subtleties in language can allow them not only to express thoughts and ideas, but also to convey mood, tone, and feelings. They might realize that the loss of the more abstract only gives way to the gaining of a tool. Perhaps someday they might discover the value of expression not merely
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through a single language, but through multiple languages. And then perhaps they would be able to show us, language learners from birth, how much we overlook and how little we appreciate the wonder of what we call language. VII. When I eventually learned a third language, it was nothing like the invasion of English during my childhood. The language was French, and I had been taking classes since my elementary school days in Canada. But it wasn’t until I actually had the opportunity to go to France that the language finally began to seep in. During my exchange year in France, I was often amazed at the diversity of the foreign films that played in the theaters. I had traveled to France to learn a foreign language and now found five or six under one roof. Opting for the familiar in this foreign land, I bought a ticket for a Chinese film by Wong Kar Wai, a director from Hong Kong. The film was called In the Mood for Love, and it was about two neighbors—a man and a woman living in 1960’s Hong Kong—who both discover that their spouses are having an affair with each other. The story centers around the unrequited love between this man and woman who are attracted to one another, but are too hurt by their spouses’ actions to repeat their same mistake. For all its intertwined relationships, the plot was quite simple—star-‐ crossed lovers, mourning an impossible love. In the spirit of its simplicity, the film often abandoned speech for other more powerful forms of expression—for color, for sound, and even for silence. The scenes of the film were portrayed in deep tones—the man’s black suits; the woman’s dark red and green cheongsam dresses with the high collar, long skirt, and delicate side buttons; the shadows of the alleys, the side streets, and the narrow hallways; and the dim lamps whose light hit the walls and the curtains, and refracted into shades of deep yellow, orange, and red. The music was just as evocative, featuring a recurring theme of short, crisp pizzicato notes played on the strings and set against the lilting, melancholy melody of the violin. During certain songs, Nat King Cole’s voice sang out in Spanish, accompanied by a slow percussive background that suggested the swaying movement of a Latin dancer’s hips. 39
Even the sparse dialogue was powerful in its conciseness, reflecting the subdued emotions of the characters and leaving unspoken thoughts to resound in their silence. When the actors did speak, there was only one character in the movie I couldn’t understand. She spoke a completely different Chinese dialect, and whenever she talked I would have to follow along by reading the French subtitles. It was the first time that I had ever mixed Chinese and French, and the back and forth process was interspersed with occasional comments I made to my friend in English. Yet I had no trouble going from the Chinese and the French in the film to the English I spoke to my friend. Before long, I even found that I had stopped trying to connect the French on the screen with the Chinese I heard from the characters in the movie. I was no longer distinguishing between all the different words. The whole experience became a fusion of languages—the bright, terse monosyllables of Cantonese, the softer, more fluid sounds of English, and, had the subtitles been spoken, even the light, musical quality of French. And then all these languages faded into the deep hues of the scenes and the low tones of the strings, melding with color and music. I watched and I listened until I no longer saw or heard any languages at all but simply absorbed and understood.
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Anklet Shome Dasgupta You stand there by yourself. I want to be with you, Stranger. Together, we will be alone. Away. I stood on the banks of the Ganges as it passed through Kolkata. To my right was a family bathing in the river: the boy and the girl splashed each other and shouted and laughed, and the mother and father wiped themselves with towels. I took off my shoes and socks, and went into the water where it just came to my ankles. The sun was mostly down, and a breeze came with the current of the river. I looked around and couldn't see anyone else-‐-‐I could only see the river's infinity. The two children, while chasing each other, ran into me, and I fell over-‐-‐immersed into the Ganges. I swallowed some of the water and tasted Kolkata. I couldn't really explain it. It was a mixture of dirt and spirituality. I stood up and coughed, and the parents came over and apologized, making sure that I was okay. The children laughed and ran away. “Sorry,” the man said. “These children know no boundaries." His skin was as dark as the river, and he was thin-‐-‐his ribs pushed against the inside of his skin. He had dark black hair which was partially covered with soap suds, and a thin mustache. They must live in one of the nearby huts. “Are you okay?” the woman asked. Take me away. I love my brother. I love his children. I do not love myself. Take me away with you. Your brown eyes. That scruff on your chin. I will lick you up. Together, we will be free. She was beautiful. She was skinny, but unlike her husband, she had enough skin to hide any sight of her ribs. Her hair came down to the middle of her back, and her skin color reminded me of the perfect cup of tea and cream I had earlier that day. I coughed a few more times and nodded my head. “I’m fine,” I replied. “Come,” the man said. “Dry yourself. I have a towel.”
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I followed the man and the woman to their house which was just set off the river. It was a small wooden hut-‐-‐I could see the different sizes and types of wooden boards used to make the door, the house. It was a one room place. The floor, or ground, consisted of patches of dirt and wood and brick. The door was kept open to let the breeze pass through. The lady gave me a towel. She wrapped a small piece of a maroon cloth around her body. She looked more beautiful than when she was naked. The subtle hints of what lay underneath the small cloth, her black eyes, and her long black hair could have easily made her a siren in Homer’s epic poem. She didn't even have to sing. Look at me. Look at me as you do. I know. You see beauty, but I am just dirt and water. I am mud everywhere. Clean me. Wash me. Lick me. I love everyone, but myself. Take me away. The man wore a white cloth around his hip and a sleeveless white shirt. He apologized again for the mishap. “No problem,” I said. “Here,” the lady said. “I’ll help.” She took the towel from my hands and dried my face, hair, and neck. “Please,” she said. “Take your clothes off. You will become sick.” Strip yourself of everything. And I will too. Together we will go away on the Ganges. Forever and ever we will go. Can you hear what I am thinking? Can you see the way I am looking at you? Dear Stranger, my Nothing. Hear me, please. Take me away. “I’ll be okay." “I’ll give you some of Kumar’s clothes,” she said. “And when your clothes dry, you can change again.” Kumar went outside and told the children to come in because it was becoming dark. The woman handed me pants and a white t-‐shirt. “It is similar to what you are wearing now,” she replied. "What is your name?" I asked. I am yours. This is my name. We are each other. "Shiva," she said. Destroy me. Make me crumble.
The children laughingly ran into the house followed by Kumar. “We are eating fish for dinner,” he said. “Please sit and eat with us.” “Please,” I said. “I don't want to be a bother. I'll make my way out now.” “Please,” Shiva said. “Eat with us. We never have company. Have some fish while your clothes dry, and then make your way out.” Stay, please. You will like my cooking. I did not know it until now, but I cooked for you. Taste it. Breathe it. As I want to breathe you. I agreed to their suggestion. Kumar set the table-‐-‐a small wooden one with uneven legs. “Can I help with anything?” I asked. “No,” he said. “No. Please sit and stay warm.” I sat on a wobbly wooden chair that had a cushion. The pillow had patterns of circles, squares, and triangles in reds, greens, and blues. “I made that pillow,” Shiva said. Rest your head upon my pillow. "Pretty," I said. She went to the middle of the room and drew the curtain, which was attached to a clothesline, going from one end of the room to the other-‐-‐ serving as a wall. I could see her silhouette as she changed her clothes. I could not help but to imagine her nipples, trying hard to burn holes through the curtain with my eyes. Are you watching me? A naked ghost, waiting to moan. When she came out she wore a long white gown which was transparent enough to see the brown of her body. I wanted to kiss her. I went outside and smoked a cigarette, and by the time I was finished, the fish was ready. “Let us eat,” Kumar said. He put the fish on a large plate. Shiva put a bowl of rice and a bowl of vegetables on the table. “It is not much,” she said.
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“It's more than enough,” I replied. The children sat around the table, and I squeezed in at one of the corners. “So how long have you all been living here?” I asked. I have never lived here. Not now. Not before. Not after. I am always gone. “All our lives,” Kumar said. “After the death of our parents, we took over the house. It has come a long way, but still needs more work.” “Your parents?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. “Shiva and I are siblings. I, three years older.” I speedily ate my food. “I will leave you my contact information,” I said. “Call me and I will be happy to help you out.” Help. “I am sorry,” Kumar said. “I cannot accept the offer for I do not have the money to pay for such services.” “Please,” I said. “At no cost. Or this wonderful dinner will be my pay.” They were excited by my response and immediately offered me more food, and I graciously accepted it. As we talked, I found out more information about them: Kumar was a fisherman and Shiva took care of the house and sometimes helped out with her brother’s work. They didn't have enough money to provide schooling for the children, but the sister made an effort to teach them the basics. “It is enough for them to survive,” she said. I want to survive with you. Teach me. Free me. I love them. I love them all. But the door is too small. The river, too big. I told them some general information about myself-‐-‐that I lived in America and was visiting my relatives in Kolkata. They told me more about themselves. The children didn't belong to the brother or the sister, but to another brother who couldn't be found. They weren't sure if he was dead, but they hadn't heard from him in three years. The siblings, collectively,
decided to take care of the children, and neither of them had been married before. As we ate our dinner, my attraction to Shiva increased. She had a human quality that I could not describe-‐-‐a certain gentleness. Perhaps I found something spiritual in her. I read your mind, Stranger, Friend. Do it. And when it is all done, I will be gone. The evening breeze that I had felt while standing in the Ganges must have been a sign of a storm coming. As we finished dinner, I heard thunder and saw flashes of lightening through the window. The black sky was framed with bright bolts; surrounded with crashing sounds. The rain poured hard. The children weren't scared; however, my emotions were quite the opposite. “I should go before it gets any worse,” I said. Not yet. It is not the time. Not now. But soon. “No,” Kumar said. “You must not in this weather. Please stay. The storm should be here for a while, and then who knows what will happen to the electricity and then the traffic will be horrible.” “I should not impose,” I said. “I’ll be okay.” “Please,” Shiva said. I agreed to stay. “I am sorry but I cannot be much company,” Kumar said. “I must be up early in the morning for work. This rain will bring in plenty of fish for me to gather. Please excuse me while I go to bed.” I gave him my contact information in case he wanted my help with the house while I was in Kolkata. I looked around the room and saw that there wasn't a telephone anywhere. The man told the children that it was their bed time, and they gave me a hug, like I had been a part of the family for years, and went to bed. Everyone, but Shiva and I, went to the other side of the curtain. “What do you plan to do for the rest of the night?” I asked. You will feel. Me. Keep your eyes closed, and you will see me. “I must get up early as well,” she said. “Please make yourself comfortable for the night.”
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From a stack of cloths kept on the floor, she pulled out a blanket and a thin pillow. Thunderous. “Thank you,” I said. “Well, goodnight.” “Goodnight,” she said. “I probably will not see you in the morning, but I will leave some food on the table for breakfast. Please eat some.” “Thank you,” I said. Thank you for everything. This will be my last everything. I noticed the anklet around her right ankle. It was red and had tiny white beads jingling around it. She told me goodnight again, and as she went to the other side of the curtain, I realized that I didn't want the night to be over. I lay on the mat and waited for the lightening flashes to appear through the window. As my eyes drooped and as I turned to my side to sleep, I heard a slight jingling. The sound became louder and louder until it finally stopped. I felt a touch on my shoulder. I turned around and lay flat on my back. She bent down and then she saddled me. She never said a word, nor did I, as I was lost in a dreamlike state. She kissed my lips. She kissed me repeatedly as she ran her hands through my hair. My hands clenched her sides. “Take me,” she whispered. "I am already gone." She stood up and walked away. The jingling of her anklet faded as quickly as it had increased a few minutes ago. I was left with the clash of electrical particles sounding outside. I heard the birds chirp, and I felt the heat of the sunrise against my eyelids, but I continued to sleep. I heard a scream, but I still kept my eyes shut. After a second scream, I woke up. I stood up and looked around the house-‐-‐empty. When I walked outside, I saw the children playing in the river, and I heard another scream. No one else was around. I walked around to the back of the house, where I saw Kumar-‐-‐ he was on his knees, facing a tree, with his hands raised to the sky. He wailed, and I ran to him to see if he was hurt. Her body was dangling from one of the branches. I heard the jingling sound. She used the gossamer gown she wore last night as the noose-‐-‐ her body was bare except for the anklet she wore and it clinked as the
wind blew. Kumar didn't look at me, but continued to cry-‐-‐I knelt beside him and tried to comfort him, but his delirium kept me away. She had her hair up like she didn't want it to get in the way of hanging herself. Her toenails and fingernails were painted red, and the small muscles in her stomach were showing. I saw that a piece of paper was nailed to the body of the tree. I ripped it off: Now I can become a dream. I knelt down on the roots of the tree and gazed at the swaying body. She was a lifeless beauty. Her anklet jingled, and I began to cry.
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Thanks Lou Reed Cora Cabahug Pyles
“He looks like Bruce Lee,” Heather’s friend Mike had told her. She scanned her cul-‐de-‐sac, the stark faces of the track homes browbeaten by the Southern California summer sun; models one to five, each sister house hunching three feet away from the other, grimacing at the marked differences—a banzai tree, showoff roses, rock bed borders— in the other’s front yard. Would anyone inside notice Ricky walking up? She colored in a hunky Chinese man in a helmet hair cut sauntering down her street, arms swinging in time with buoyant legs, ready to spring and round kick ninjas leaping from the trashcans. “I’m grounded,” she’d told Ricky on the phone an hour ago. “But my mom will be gone for about an hour. Better come right now or don’t come at all.” “Yeah, dude. Seeya in a few,” Ricky said. Heather had never bought pot before. She didn’t know Ricky. But Mike said he was okay. Maybe she’d like him. “It’s cool he delivers,” she had said to Mike. “But why would he come to my house? He doesn’t know me.” “I dunno,” Mike said. She had heard him exhale smoke and chuckle, pictured his tan, jock-‐handsome face. Heather hoped Mike had not said anything weird to Ricky. Instead, she let herself think that maybe Ricky saw her at school and thought she was cool or pretty. Pretty gets you things, Heather thought. And she did think she was pretty, sometimes, when she made up her eyes to smoldering and used contouring blush to slim down her plump cheeks, donned black clothes and drank two-‐dollar Boone’s Farm wine, then, she felt pretty. But other times she felt pretty ugly, such as after eating a pint of ice cream and then taking a nap, waking up to feel the pool of fatty slop still in her stomach, or when she couldn’t find a thing to wear that would be approved by the other new wave, punk rock outcasts at school. Maybe he thought she was pretty, she had lost a few pounds this summer. She felt okay. So it was cool he was coming to her house. What better thing to do when you’re grounded than to get high in the safety of your room, not worrying if you’re pretty enough for anything? 49
She smoked a stray roach and waited. “Shit. Where is he?” She broke from the window and crouched to turn up the boombox on the floor, then jumped back on the stage: the space between her bed and mirror. Reaching up with open palms toward her popcorn ceiling in gospel praise, her head nodding with the song’s rhythm, she joined Lou Reed in a duet: “Baby be good, do what you should, you know it will work alright.” Lou Reed, on the cover of the cassette—The Velvet Underground/ Velvet Underground, 1969— wore shagged hair, t-‐shirt, jeans, shades, all black over wall-‐pale skin. His image somersaulted behind her eyelids against a background of white light, the color of a meditative “yes.” Although the album was released two years before she was born, and it was now 1987, the song’s lyrics struck brilliantly like a new-‐found cure. Electricity. She swallowed the words, round and meaty, tasting their possibilities. Sweating now, Heather flopped onto the bed and chiseled the ceiling with her eyes; carved an image of herself and Bruce Lee on her bed discussing Lou Reed. Bruce Lee’s marble hand that could chop bricks props up his head, his elbow on her purple pillow. He looks up at Heather, sitting with her back against the wall, rolling a perfectly tight joint against the Cliff Notes’ “Emerson and Thoreau on Transcendentalism” on her lap. “It was about love then, in the 60’s, you know?” Heather on the ceiling said, “The kind of love that was free, that set you free, that didn’t tie you down or make you sit by the stupid phone waiting for it to ring…it wasn’t about commitments…it was about loving life and diggin’ on each other.” Ceiling Heather zipped a cherry-‐colored lighter, dragged on the joint, gracefully, without screwing up her face. “Now in the eighties it’s about power; sex is something you want and take and try to get more of than the next person, like money, you know? Sex is something that’s used to hurt, because it’s not about love anymore.” “Whoa, you’re right, Heth,” Bruce on the ceiling said, “I never thought of it that way.”
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“Yeah, me neither. Really. Until I listened to Lou Reed. But what do I know? I’ve never been in love before. Maybe puppy love in the seventh grade.” “Yeah, puppy love,” Bruce smiled. Heather passed him the joint; he sucked. She imagined her words were as promising as those throat-‐ burning leaves. The real Heather was going to be a high school senior in the fall—less than a year to be deemed profound. “That was different. Innocent,” ceiling Heather continued, “I didn’t even want sex then. Puppies don’t want sex, do they, Bruce?” “No. Don’t think so Heth.” The ceiling Heather gazed at him and let the good vibes stir in silence. The pause, in Heather’s moving images, was the best part. “But like Thoreau says, we only know what we experience. So I need to experience before I really know any of this stuff.” “How can one be so smart, young and sexy at the same time?” ceiling Bruce said. He lifted himself off his elbow and reached for her; the muscles in his arms pushed and rolled under tanned skin like a tiny throbbing mountain range. The real Heather clung to Bruce’s words as she put her hand under her shirt and squeezed her breast. The other hand slithered down to her thigh. She opened her legs and felt the hard ligament that bridged her thigh and pubis. “Touch me,” Heather said as she caressed the smooth skin and tugged on a crinkled hair. She opened her hand, wide as a man’s. “Oh Bruce, fuck me in two,” she said, as her fingers moved under warm pink cotton. The rumble of a car rolling up the driveway made Heather yank her hand away and jump back to the window. Below her the tan Ford Tempo crept halfway up the driveway, stopped, lurched, stopped, lurched, then quit four feet from the garage door. Mom. Up the street, Heather noticed the small figure, a boy, sauntering towards the house. He stopped mid-‐step and awkwardly pulled out a cigarette from a bulge in his front jeans pocket. Ricky. She darted down the stairs and in five seconds was on the driveway where she spied her mother behind the wheel, the car door open, digging in her purse, pursuing what Heather guessed was a receipt, an Activan sedative, or a bite size Snickers.
“Let me open the trunk for you Mom,” Heather said. Her mother had trouble opening the trunk. She held a degree and had taught banking in the Philippines, was now a realtor, but for some reason didn’t drive the freeways, couldn’t pump her own gas, and always had trouble opening the trunk. “It doesn’t open when I do it,” her mother said, as always. She started to smile but then her lips clamped shut. Heather read her mother’s wary gaze and looked down at her skirt as if remembering a fresh stain that needed washing. Heather brought in the groceries for her mother. Standing in the mouth of the refrigerator, Heather settled an egg into its cradle. “Jennifer is having a party,” Heather said, holding the empty egg container. Her mother blocked the garbage can as she poured a ten-‐pound bag of rice in a yellow Tupperware cylinder. Heather couldn’t ask her to move, not yet. “The party’s this Saturday.” Her mother twisted the empty canvas rice bag like a wet rag and evaluated Heather through her drug store version Ray-‐Bans. Heather wore a red sixty’s style sleeveless top and denim skirt that seemed to not be cinching her waist as usual. Her hair was neat, brushed, Aqua-‐net hairspray-‐free. Heather knew her mother approved. “Heather, you’re grounded,” her mother said. “But its Jennifer’s party,” Heather clarified. Jennifer, Heather’s best friend, was not at the Guns’n’Roses concert last Saturday; she did not come home drunk at 5 a.m.; and Jennifer, did not get slapped as she walked through the front door, by her mother. Heather’s mother dropped the rice bag in the trashcan and shook her head. “Fine. Dad and I are going to Aunt Lisa’s for mahjong that night. You better not come home late.” “Thanks, Mom.” Heather hugged her. She went out to the car to get the grocery bag that, as she told her mother, she forgot to bring in. Ricky hovered across the street like an undecided fly. He was just a year under her but looked more like a grade-‐schooler who should be riding a BMX bike on the tennis courts, not a pot peddler. His lollipop head over his runt figure nodded towards her. She cringed at the thought of her fabricated ceiling scenario minutes earlier, then waved Ricky over.
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Heather expected he’d be pissed, having to wait, but the plastered grin below his glassy eyes suggested otherwise. “Dude, your mom’s home. Whatta we do?” Ricky said. Heather scrutinized the chunks of his thick black straight hair pointing in all directions as she pondered her next move. A romantic interlude could not be possible, but the ghost of the ceiling Heather haunted her, yearned to play itself out. To Speak. To Dazzle. She brought Little Ricky to the kitchen where her mother was washing rice. Heather figured since he was Chinese, Japanese, or Korean, an Asian kid with tadpole eyes, he was non-‐suspect. She decided Ricky was Chinese, like Bruce Lee. “Mom, this is Ricky. Is it okay if I take him up to see my wall? “Hi Ricky, nice to meet you.” Heather’s mother said, in her Miss Provincial Princess voice, the same voice she used to greet other moms and dads at the community pool when Heather was younger, or Heather’s father’s work friends at banquets and company picnics. Heather’s mom was always polite. Heather tilted her chin up and straightened her back as she led Ricky up the stairs to her bedroom. “I’ve kept it minimal,” Heather said, entering the room that was furnished with a mattress, floor lamp and large wall mirror. The wall behind the mattress was papered from ceiling to floor with aluminum foil. “Cool foil.” Little Ricky said. He tossed a sandwich bag of tiny, dusty leaves onto the bed; the sweet earthy smell blotted the room. He stepped to the wall and pressed his nose onto his wrinkled reflection. “Whoa.” “Andy Warhol had it all over his studio, called The Factory. Mick Jagger, Lou Reed, all the in artists and celebrities in New York hung out there,” Heather said. “Oh. Don’t know any of those dudes,” he said. Heather swallowed disappointment, again. This Ricky is a step back, she thought. “You’ve gotta go. I’m grounded,” Heather said, and opened her bedroom door. “Your mom said it was okay,” Ricky said. 53
“If you’re here longer than ten minutes she’ll check up.” She cocked her head. “Hey Mike said you like to party,” he whined. Heather felt a second pang of Mike’s possible betrayal. “Would you shut up, my mom’s probably listening by the stairs.” “She can’t hear anything.” Heather waved her hand then put a finger to her lips. “She’s coming up.” The creak of footsteps ascending the stairs was audible to both of them. Heather stood behind the doorframe and peeked into the hallway. “Close the door!” Ricky whispered. Heather ignored him, waiting for her mother’s steps to come. “The shit’s on the bed, close the door!” Ricky lunged and pushed the door closed, nearly slamming it on Heather’s fingers. She pulled her hand away and held it in front of her chest. “You okay?” Ricky said. He reached as if to grab her hand but missed. His palm wiped over her nipple. “What are you doing?” Heather said, backing away. Anger swept across Ricky’s face. “We could’ve done this by the golf course, why’d you bring me up here?” Heather swayed as the heat, hunger and confusion crashed down on her. “I don’t know. I thought…” She stopped to listen once more for her mother’s steps, but heard nothing. “Can you just go, please?” Ricky stared for a moment then grinned. His head shook, making the clumps of his hair bob. “Yeah, it’s cool. Whatever. See you around at school.” He opened the door. “Hey, what are you going to tell Mike?” Heather asked. Ricky’s eyes disappeared as he grimaced. “Fuckin’ Mike? He’s trippin’ dude, I don’t know why he’s saying all this shit about you.” “Yeah, really,” Heather said, and shrugged like it was no big deal. “Wait. I’ll walk down with you, I guess,” Heather called after him.
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Down the stairs, Heather heard her mother’s voice speaking in Tagalog on the phone, in the dining room adjacent to the kitchen. The unknown syllables rang in a gossipy tone. Heather heard no pause in her mother’s chatter until Ricky opened the front door. “Heather, are you leaving?” her mother’s voice said. “No mom, just Ricky.” Her mother’s voice said “wait a second” to the phone. Ricky turned his head towards the dining room and lifted his small chin. Heather followed his gaze on the dining room area where only an end arm chair was visible. Heather quickly visualized the next scene: her mother poised at the other end, still as statue, before resting the phone to get up. She’d walk the five feet of copper plush carpet, then pop her soft, pretty face around the wall’s corner. She’d ask Heather, sweet but suspicious, about the smell upstairs. Heather would say, most casually, that she was burning incense in her room—again. There’d be a tense second, perhaps fear in Ricky, but Heather knew somehow she’d get through it unscathed. It would be, actually, the perfect scenario to demonstrate her cool and quick cleverness, her flair for deception; and with Ricky as a witness, be parlayed into an anecdote spread around school, or at least, her circle, to boost her reputation. Make up for Ricky being so boyish, so wrong. Redeem the whole lame day. Or maybe it would be different. Her mother, concerned, would say “what are you doing, Heather?” in a way that would give Heather no choice but confession: Yes, mom, it’s what you think it is. The stuff that smells like incense? I’ve smoked it before… had a stash in my room all week but ran out…so I called Ricky. And you were here the whole time. And it’s so easy, like ditching school, and kissing boys, and letting them touch me, and wanting to do more if I wasn’t so scared…and going to clubs and parties with alcohol and saying I’m sleeping over at a friend’s but not coming to a home at all. Ricky is high right now, can’t you tell? And we almost had sex…he could’ve raped me up there in my room but you’d never know…You think boys come up to see my wall—that’s it—and I don’t know if that’s cool of you or if you just don’t care…and I don’t know if that’s good or bad, wrong or right, because Lou Reed says that both those words are dead…and that’s more sense than anything I’ve heard from you— ever. Her mother wouldn’t yell or scream. No. But her hand would raise and slice the air beside her right ear; with perfect teeth clinched and eyes
glaring beyond Heather, perhaps at some dream kicking the dirt past her, she’d say, “This. Is. Not. For. Me.” There’d be silence after that, as always. Heather would bow her head and collect another sigh from her mother before watching her disappear. Heather could then grin and shrug at Ricky—like, no big deal—but anticipate, even enjoy, a brief and subtle change— like the weather— clear skies after the rain, before the smog rolls back all over them. “Bye Ricky,” Heather’s mom called out. Ricky’s body jerked slightly. “Bye, um, Heather’s mom.” He stuffed his hands in his pockets, kept his eyes on the chair. His expectant grin, the same one Heather caught earlier on the street, trembled and waited. Her own lips quivered as she attempted to bring her mouth corners up. “Um, she’s not coming,” Heather said, in a weak sardonic puff. “Yeah, whatever.” He screwed up his face in an expression that Heather couldn’t read, but it poked her insides and made her sorry she spoke the way she did. She let off a nervous laugh and stepped outside the door for him to follow. Ricky was just a kid, Heather thought, and Asian, like her. Just trying to be cool, fit in, fit out, like her. Maybe they shared more than their age and coloring, and maybe she should be smart enough to sense some connection. Heather looked again at Ricky’s big face and shook away these notions. She smiled when he said “Seeya” then groaned, closing the door behind him. For now, she didn’t want to wonder about her and Ricky’s similarities or sameness. She didn’t want to be the same as him, or anybody, really. For now she needed to be unique, original, and passionate about a purpose or idea that would set her apart from Ricky, her lump of friends, from everybody. Only one thing seemed to offer a glimpse of this—Lou Reed. Relieved to be in her room again, alone, she watched Ricky’s small figure going up the street, stopping to take a toke, like a fly crawling on a light bulb, oblivious to the sick glow. She hid the pot under her mattress and circled the room, trying to out pace the guilt—or was it shame?—rushing inside. She craved a double-‐ scoop of Thrifty’s Rocky Road, but her objective to fast away a few more
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millimeters forced her to nosh, instead, on a vision of the upcoming party: friends, chips, sandwiches, beer, wine, rum—her tantalizingly trim image introducing Lou Reed. She would tell her friends that there was something in his music, the words, that was building a country inside her; and when she’s asked, again, where she’s from— whether she is Chinese, Japanese, Samoan or Filipino— “The Velvet Underground” is what Heather could say. Yes, she could talk about these things to her real friends. They were cool. They would get me, Heather imagined. And like her mom, she would not come empty-‐handed. She had a sandwich bag of pot to bring.
Cruising on Revisitation Michael Caylo-‐Baradi The car slices though my old neighborhood, pulsating apprehension. I retrace years, habits rigid and busy as intersections, sidewalks crowded as thoughts in meditations. The familiar has new layers now: structures are less structured, transforming blocks, towering over houses, memories, how people used to move, body language now busy on new narratives. There are more parked cars, too, than children on the street, glossy imports, repainted, frames modified, all shinier than innocence. Familiar street names huddle over each other, in my car, in my head, hiding intimate secrets, refusing to clarify their spellings, to confuse visitors, directing them away from the neighborhood, from the altar of pride in place: home. I see front lawns; they visit my childhood afternoons, drafting shadows, mothering children not to leave the yard. Their voices enter children’s ears, but are not understood. The children run, towards the street, down the sidewalk, to their friends, to be soaked in the summer of play, sweating giggles. I pass a boy running towards someone, perhaps his father, an uncle, his hero. He is running towards expectations, something greater, his complicity with power unrestrained, understood like unspoken cataracts. He understands religion of obedience, and kneels before it; he’d defend it like a nation, and devour its maturity like a fooled saint. After the red light, the boy is still running, on my rearview, running from Manila to Disneyland. He does not disappear, and refuses to. There is anger in the
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refusal, becoming form, resembling power, one that builds cities, hungry, imperial as child’s needs
As Real As It Gets Wayne Sullins Hyperbole’s the word – exaggeration for effect. One of the few English words Thanh remembered from his high school days. A word he liked because he had always added a little punch to his own descriptions of things, or of how he felt. It wasn’t ever a green hat, but a hat so green the jungle envied its color. And never did he feel sad, but as though his insides were a house of cards that had just collapsed. This colorful language had earned him the nickname Poet; though he hated poetry and hadn’t touched a book since he left school. Then he’d heard that word again, hyperbole, spoken by a fat balding Westerner he’d seen drinking bia hoi one night with two young locals he knew to be shrewd and not altogether trustworthy. The Westerner had laughed a lot and kept shaking hands with his two companions, treating them both to round after round until, as Thanh would say, they could have pissed a river. He had been sitting alone near the door slowly nursing a bia, watching the girls on motorbikes go by in their bright new spring outfits, when that word hyperbole caught his ear; and he’d turned to see the bald guy with those two crooks. The only other thing he had understood the guy say was that he wanted to see the real Vietnam. Thanh hadn’t known many foreigners, had no foreign friends, and often tried to imagine what these French, Australian and American tourists had come here to find, or to forget. Was it a genuine interest in his people and culture, or just another stop on the tour? Had they, perhaps, lost a friend, a relative in the American War and had come here to see for themselves this land where said friend or relative had, like so many of his people, been cut from the bush before ever having blossomed? No doubt some were good people, others self-‐centered and harboring disdain. Now, here was a man wanting to see the real Vietnam. But whose real? which real, Thanh wondered, no longer watching the girls but these two drinking with the bald guy who’d obviously convinced him they could show him what he wanted to see. They’d taken his money because, it appeared, he was having trouble counting out the correct amount of
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d ng to pay his bill; but gave him back his wallet once that was settled, as all eyes were on them. Thanh felt a spray of something on his back and turned to see that the youngest of the staff, who’d just opened a new keg, was filling a few mugs and some beer had splashed up onto Thanh. He good-‐naturedly asked the boy if he charged extra for the shower, then paid for the beers and followed the Westerner and his guides out to the motorbikes. These guys were daredevils, twice almost running down pedestrians, and Thanh had to go a lot faster than usual to keep up. But he loved that feeling of wind caressing his hair, especially on spring nights like this when even the air itself, he’d say, was choking on the fragrance of flowers. The bald guy, who must have had drank a lot of bia hoi to be so drunk, took off his hat when they reached the Long Bien Bridge and waved it in the air, cowboy-‐style. Until then, he hadn’t ever really given this bridge a thought, although he’d been across it, on foot, even, a hundred times. He knew from a paper he had had to write in history class that it was built in the late 19th century, designed by the man responsible for both the Eiffel Tower and New York’s Statue Of Liberty. Today awfully rusty and in dire need of paint, it’s kind of cool, he decided, as bridges go. He’d often taken this ride to escape Hanoi’s constant bustle. Sit outdoors and have a drink. Watch a boy shaving stalks of sugarcane with a white rabbit nibbling grass at his feet. Share cigarettes with an old guy whose face, Thanh would say, had been torched beyond belief but whose laugh was sweeter than that of ten boys. Once they’d reached Long Bien, the speed demons followed the curve that leads around the park and under the bridge, then almost immediately veered off to the left. Neither of their bikes had rearview mirrors and they hadn’t looked back once, so Thanh felt confident they didn’t know he was tailing them. It wasn’t long before they turned down a narrow alley and shut off their lights. To play it safe, Thanh parked his bike on the street before pursuing them on foot. They were easy to find, he just followed the sound of their voices. At first Thanh just stood at a distance, watching. They’d pushed the bald guy against a wall, near a dim light. One emptied his wallet while the other with a hare lip held a pocket knife to the guy’s throat. All that beer in his system brought out the beast in him and he
punched the one holding the knife in the ribs. But that just made harelip more beastly himself. Is this real enough for you,’ he asked in Vietnamese, driving the knife in below the guy’s belt. That’s when Thanh rushed at them with a long pole he’d found in a doorway. Not the least bit alarmed, harelip said, ‘So, it’s you, Poet. Come to join the party?’ Though he hardly knew him Thanh had never liked this guy, wearing his lip like a badge of ill repute threatening any who entertained even the slightest revulsion. So, with the end of the pole he jabbed him in the face and knocked harelip on his ass. The other, a sniveling fat-‐faced lackey, took to his heels. Funny enough, the knife hadn’t punctured the bald guys stomach, but his bladder; and Thanh couldn’t help laugh along with him as they both stared, unbelieving, at, as Thanh would say, a glorious golden arc of beer jetting out of the man’s gut.
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Life, Stupefying Sabrina Tom I am not a scientist. But I feel a kinship with scientists. Doppelganger to writers, we share a common investment in human nature, a love affair with facts and, every so often, if we’re inclined and lucky, a belief that what we do can change the world. In the creativity process, science and literature share a list of staggeringly mundane behaviors. These include (to borrow from Ian McEwan) tolerance of drudgery, luck, ambition, playfulness, and a kind of abandonment to a determined stupor. My belief in the connectedness between scientists and writers is reinforced by the existence of my real life double. The discovery originated from an impulse, or what in the scientific method is known as asking a question. What gmail username to register? I had gone online and typed in the most self-‐reflective choice, only to find that it was taken. Derivations by punctuation—a dash, a period, even the unfashionable underscore—were also taken. The obvious conclusion would’ve been that someone else with the same name had beaten me to it, yet this seemed so implausible that I Googled myself fully expecting to expose some fourteen year old name squatter in Minnesota looking to make a quick buck. Then Occam’s Razor asserted itself. There was another Sabrina Tom in this world. To accept all of the conflicts my double created on the grid (other sites aggrieved: Yahoo, Skype, LinkedIn, Facebook) was to accept that my username would forever be complicated by extra letters or numbers (only if I ever ran for President, I swore). But once I got over that, a minor inconvenience morphed into a more haunting set of metaphysical questions. Who is Sabrina Tom? How were we similar? How were we the same? I did my research. The first bit of information was straightforward enough: we were both Chinese. However, one of us was full Chinese, while the other was half. What did this asymmetry mean? If we met would I only recognize a part of her and vice versa? Did this imply that race was a far less sticky glue holding our beliefs and affinities together? The next bit was also a mind bender. We were both the same age, not to the day, the month or even the year, but close enough to question our
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shared past (Did she listen to Wham!? Did she idolize Jake Ryan?), not to mention fate and mortality. Finally, I looked to understand something about Sabrina Tom by her career choices. She was a cognitive neuroscientist studying the brain’s response to taking risks. In one study, she and her team took brain scans while a group of volunteers played a gambling game in which the odds stayed the same but the wagers changed. They found that as the stakes increased, volunteers took fewer chances, and concluded that in general people weren’t willing to take a risk unless the potential gain far outweighed the perceived losses. A real world implication might look something like this: you are a woman in a bad relationship. You are unlikely to leave unless you are certain that someone better—at least 200% better, to be exact—will come along. What were the losses versus gains from the discovery of my double? As a writer, I make up entire realities for my characters, yet I was sure I didn’t want to know this story, for the same reason why I choose fiction over non. Or why the woman in the bad relationship keeps a suitcase packed with lacy underwear and a wad of cash. It’s about self-‐ preservation, delighting in the unexpected. And here’s where the connection between science and literature ruptures. Some mysteries are best unsolved. Writers seldom reach conclusions. Our inclination is to take something known and chip away its irrefutability. To add layers. To forsake real life for lifelike. What if astronomers had landed on Jupiter instead of the moon? Or physicists never discovered nuclear fission? What if you could talk to angels? What of a world fashioned by the imagination of writers? As for my double, having left her an open ending, I hope that she is chasing a different outcome, creating her own narrative out of all of the stupefying possibilities.
At The Table Priyanka Champaneri My parents have a fondness for furniture, in particular large, hulking, wood-‐carved pieces that have glossy polished surfaces that gleam like a glass of cola held up to the light. The feet on these wardrobes and tables, curios and night stands, are immovable, resolute; sometimes nothing more than artfully carved wood blocks affixed to the legs, and other times they are curved talons and claws that grip spheres of wood in a bizarre balancing act. Each of these pieces, that my mother lovingly wipes down for dust each weekend, and that my father refers to in proud tones to guests as if introducing another child (“This is Mahogany, and that is Walnut, and over here we have Cherry.”) is what I imagine my parents thought America would be – what they thought luxury would be, when they were each tied to white-‐washed concrete walls in Indian houses that I have never seen, not even in pictures. The oldest piece is a dining room set that includes an elaborate room-‐ spanning table, eight chairs, and two extra leaves that we’ve never used. The table is one of the heaviest items in my parent’s house, a fact I know from experience during the two times my parents moved. It is a table that I have never once eaten at. Instead of people, bags from weekend shopping trips sit in each chair, and newspapers and books pool across the table surface where the place settings should be. My parents had just moved into their first house when they bought the table, and I was newly-‐born. At the time they imagined large family gatherings sitting at the table, with overflowing thalis of rotli and puri crowding the corner ends, while larger vessels of rice, dhals, spiced vegetables, and meats might have their place in the center. They imagined extra chairs gathered from the kitchen and sitting rooms shoved into the small gaps around the table to accommodate all the adults, and they assumed the children would either sit in the laps of big people, or they would be content to run around the house, stopping only to eat food proffered from some hand. Any hand. A family hand. When I look at old family pictures, I can find numerous baby photos of my older brother, but none of me. It is as if those days had vanished, just like the family – my parents’ families – who never showed up to fulfill the promise of that table. I have reproached my mother about the lack of
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photos, and the one time she ever gave an answer, her eyes were vague and distant. “It was a difficult time for us,” she said. “Nobody ever takes pictures when they are sad. And things happened in that year that we could never dream of.” I have never known my cousins or uncles or aunts, although they are very much alive and well. I am conscious of this fact each time I sit at the table, each time I lean against a beveled corner or stub my toe against a chair leg. The table has become a fixture to read at, or to write at. And just as my parents imagined a very real family sitting in place, I have to imagine what it would be like to be part of a family of dozens, rather than a family of four. I have to imagine myself as a niece, a granddaughter, a sister-‐cousin, a didhi and a babhi. These titles float around me each time I sit at the table that is always empty, and each time I sit at the one chair that has become my place to think, I wonder what it would be like to not imagine, but just to be.
Uma Chaiti Sen During the monsoon the leader of the Naxalites died in police custody. On one of the nights following his death, Uma woke to the sound of thunder and shouts from the street. She got up and peered out the window to the alley but saw no one. What she did see was that the silver darts of falling rain caught the light from her husband’s study. As she lay back in bed she tried not to worry that the police could use the glow of a desk light after curfew as an excuse to raid. Though it shamed her to admit it, she hoped that things would settle down and perhaps there would be some peace. At a great cost, yes, but she was weary of the violence. She was just drifting off when she heard the familiar sound of Baba’s calloused feet scraping across the tile. He blocked the light between the doors, where the edges refused to meet. This time, Uma thought, let him stand until he falls. She heard a raspy hiss escape from the bottom of his throat, and the shifts in his body, and even his heel peeling off the floor, the creak of his ankle, the disgusting sound of him scratching an itch. She spoke then, with a bite in her voice. “Baba, ki chao?” There was nothing legitimate he could want. He shuffled back to his room, the scuffing of his feet fading and disappearing. She did not hear Saurav come back to bed, but when the gray light of dawn woke her she discovered him lying stiffly at her side. The room was quiet. The rain had stopped. For a few minutes she rested her hand on his stomach, enjoying its gentle rise and fall, until Saurav covered her hand with his. “I heard shouting last night,” she said. “It was nothing,” he answered. “Just some rickshaw wallahs arguing.” She did not believe him. “Are you certain?” “Yes, I saw,” he said. “One owed money to the other.” Uma allowed a pause. “Do they not know the danger? Causing so much commotion in the middle of the night!” If Saurav had thoughts about the two rickshaw wallahs and their shouting, he kept them to himself. Uma wanted to add, “Perhaps the
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worst is over,” but she held back, not wanting to start a political discussion so early in the morning.. Gently he returned her hand and rolled over to his side, turning his back to her. Stubbornly she crept her fingers along his shoulder blade, but eventually the calls of the waking city summoned her out of bed. The day was beginning. Ten minutes later she had given Baba his tea and medication and mixed the dough for the poori. She was too tired to roll them properly. They stuck to the rolling pin and stretched into ugly ovals with inexplicable appendages. Then they refused to puff and float in the hot oil. She pulled them out one by one, each more dense and leaden than the last. She considered tossing the whole lot when her sister-‐in-‐law Meeradi charged through the door of the narrow, muggy kitchen. Despite her slight build Meeradi always overfilled a room. “Baba is screaming for his breakfast. He’ll drive us all mad.” She frowned at the pooris. Uma gave her an anguished look. “I’ll start again.” Meeradi picked up the plate. “No, these are just what he deserves,” she said, “but for my breakfast, do remember that the quality of your luchis mirrors the depth of your affection for the recipient.” Uma smiled. For Dada, Meeradi, and the girls, she mixed and fried a second batch. They were round and lovely. Upon her return Meeradi looked triumphant. “You should have seen Baba’s face. He looked absolutely constipated.” “That’s what he gets for spying in the middle of the night.” “Filthy old man!” cried Meeradi. “Do you think he would molest me?” Meeradi clutched her hands to her throat. “The exertion might finally kill him!” The very last one she made was perfection, a bright full moon. She lifted it onto the plate, where it softly exhaled. This one was for Saurav. She carried the breakfast tray up the steep stairs and cradled it in one arm while she opened the door. Her husband was tossing books into an old heavy lock chest, waiting with its jaws open. “When did you drag that in here?” she asked.
He picked up another volume from amongst the various piles of yellowing books and newspapers on his desk. With difficulty she found a space to put down the tray and opened the balcony doors, letting in a burst of light and commotion. “I can’t concentrate with that incessant honking,” he said. “Hark, he speaks!” She lay her hand dramatically on her chest. “I believe he is speaking to me.” “Good morning, my darling,” he said. Then, he smiled, revealing the deep dimples in his cheeks that made him look effortlessly happy. After eight years of marriage, one loving word from him still excited her. He was holding a booklet -‐ “Make the 1970’s the Decade of Liberation.” She took it from him but did not open it, knowing that the words would sound distant to her now. They were from another time and place that could not be revisited. She put the book aside and ran her fingers through his thick graying hair. “Aren’t you going down to the clinic today? Dada needs you.” “Yes,” he said, reaching for the book. “Yes, later.” “Dada asked for you repeatedly this morning.” Saurav flipped through the pages of the book. “You mustn’t jeopardize our peace at home. He is beginning to grumble.” She expected him to lash back at her for that remark, but he said nothing. “I saved the most perfect luchi for you,” she said. He sighed deeply and reached out to her, pulling her closer to lean his head against her stomach. “It’s exquisite,” he said. His head felt heavy, sinking into her flesh. Sometimes, less often lately, Saurav would sneak up from the clinic and join her for a private afternoon respite. Uma smiled. They lingered for several minutes, not letting go of each other. She went back downstairs to encounter Baba demands for better luchis. Uma obliged him, and then ate her own breakfast hurriedly. She helped Meeradi get the girls ready for school, administered Baba’s medication, and went to the market. Returning at mid-‐morning she entered through the clinic, off the main entrance to the house, along the hallway crowded with waiting patients, then through a maze of cabinets and folding
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panels to find her beleaguered brother-‐in-‐law swabbing the throat of a screaming child. “Has Saurav not come down?” she asked. Grimacing as he pulled the swab out of the child’s mouth, he said, “Not as of yet.” “What nonsense,” she said. “Really, Dada, you must not be so easy on him.” Uma rushed up the stairs, two steps at a time. This time she would give him a real tongue-‐lashing. This time she would remind him once and for all that she had married a doctor, not a theoretician. She ran to the study and let the door swing open. “Saurav,” she shouted. He was at the desk, his head resting on his arms, his breakfast scattered across the floor. “Saurav?” she called softly. He didn’t stir. She touched his back and felt no movement at all, no breath, no rhythm, no heat. A chill ran up her arm that pulsated through her body. She sank to the floor. When she regained her senses she looked at him once and fled the room to call for help. Gripping the banister with trembling fingers she stumbled down the endless staircase. Her limbs were limp and useless. Before she reached the bottom she found she could go no further. She sat and stared at the shadows and contours of the wall in front of her. How long she remained there she did not know. With the heavy afternoon rains the house turned a dusky blue. It looked like evening but it couldn’t have been later than tea time. Finally Uma heard Meeradi calling for her. When her sister-‐in-‐law appeared they exchanged no words. Meeradi ran up the stairs past her. Upon her return she tried to raise Uma to her feet. “Come with me.” Uma shook her away and covered her face with her hands. They muffled a wailing cry that seemed to be coming from elsewhere, a ghostly being in another corner of the house. “Come Uma. It will feel better to walk. I have you,” Meeradi said. “I won’t let you fall,” but Uma’s knees buckled and she felt monstrously heavy. She clung to the banister. Her feet always seemed to miss the landing. She wanted to get out of this blue tunnel but it went on and on until finally, with relief, she fell into a heap on the cold hard tiles. “Stay here, Uma. I’m just coming back, very soon.”
Then she didn’t want to be alone. Nor could she bear the thought of her husband alone, only a staircase between them. She had given up too soon. She pushed herself up to face the stairs again, but not even her gaze could reach the top. Meeradi gave her tranquilizers and tucked her up in the tomb-‐like room where her nieces slept. She was groggy but could not sleep, prevented alternatively by the startling thunder and the gentle breathing, shifting, and swallowing of the sleeping girls next to her. The window was open to let in the air and sound of rain. Later angry voices collected on the street below. Uma held her hand over her heart listening to their escalating cries. They demanded the ejection of a suspect from his home, their rabid throaty shouts cut with the high-‐pitched tenor of fear and grief from the man and woman of the house. The woman’s voice sounded familiar to her; it could have been her friend Lata. As she waited for some kind of resolution, knowing well how these things ended, she was gripped by a terrible clarity; her husband was dead. If the city were to erupt into more turmoil, she would have to face it alone. She heard the mob moving on, but the damage to her nerves lingered. She wanted a stronger medicine. She rose and stumbled to the door, but even after adjusting her eyes to the light she remained on the threshold, neither in nor out of the room. Weakly she called to Meeradi, who came quickly holding a tray and a bottle of pills. “I have brought you some warm milk,” she said. “What has happened?” Uma asked. “The young man at the Dhar residence.” Uma had seen that boy. Saurav knew him. Meeradi shook her head. “Who is to tell now which side is right and which side wrong?” Saurav would have known. Uma depended on him for such judgments. “I want to speak to Rupam.” It was a sudden hunger to hear her brother’s voice. Meeradi gave her another pill and told her to drink the milk. She drank quickly, burning her tongue and throat. Then Meeradi unburdened herself of the tray and pulled Uma forward, closing the door behind her.
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They linked arms and walked slowly down to the clinic, where they would sit under the fluttering lights and make the telephone call. In the office Meeradi looked through a tattered address book filled with ant-‐like lettering. She lifted the enormous telephone, cradled it between her ear and shoulder, and dialed. A moment later she spoke loudly into the phone. “It’s Calcutta here. May I speak to Rupam?” Her brother’s wife must have answered. Uma would not speak to her. She wanted her brother, but even after he waited on the line for her, she could not take the phone. Meeradi finally delivered the news herself, uttering the words “Massive Brain Aneurism,” in her clearly enunciated English. Only then did Uma take the phone. All she could remember about the conversation was that he promised to come. The most upsetting thing about the cremation was that the pregnant humid air kept the fire from spreading as it should have. They had to douse the body in kerosene, so that the ritual was interrupted and made to look like a riot rather than a funeral. Then there was an excruciating length of time waiting for the body to be engulfed. And Saurav would not have wanted any of this. He would have wanted to be delivered to the crematorium without fanfare. She wished she’d had the faculties to insist on that, for the image of Saurav’s body disappearing under the violent flame horrified her, even under heavy sedation, until finally she fainted. After the funeral she continued to sleep in the small room with the girls. They were a comfort to her. Baba also shifted downstairs. He took to sleeping on a cot in a room off the kitchen, where a servant once slept. Uma would often wake from her naps to find Baba patting her head or rubbing her back. She prayed that Rupam would arrive soon. It would be a great expense for Rupam to come from America, and Uma feared he would not have the money. She waited fretfully. When her brother finally did arrive he looked so confident and healthful, so radiant, that she fell into his arms and wept. To her, he looked exactly as a thirty-‐two year old man should look, his hair neatly combed on a side part, his skin smooth and clean-‐shaven, and his body slim and comfortable in loose-‐fitting cotton shirt and brown slacks. He came in like a cleansing breeze and took her back to her youth, before she was a wife and widow.
He took her out for tea and book browsing on College Street. He took her to the Planetarium and Botanical Gardens, even in the rain, keeping her busy from morning until night so that she would have no opportunity to collapse into self-‐pity, but as the day of his departure drew near, Uma felt the suffocating heat of grief again. She begged him to stay a little longer. On his last morning, after he’d packed his bags, he sat her down at the dining room table and said, “Did I tell that next month will be my fifth year in America?” “It seems like ten,” she said. “It is serendipitous timing,” he said. “I have applied for citizenship and can sponsor you. I always planned to ask Saurav if he’d like to bring you.” “Saurav hated America.” “But would you like to come?” “For a visit?” “Or to stay, if you like it.” She had not expected such an invitation, and had not yet given much thought to her future. “What would I do there?” “It’s a lovely place,” said Rupam. “You can help with the children, perhaps until Joy starts school, but eventually you may continue your studies. A woman of your intelligence must not throw her future away.” “Is that what you think I’ve been doing?” “No, no, but now you must plan a life without Saurav. You need not lie down and wait for your death like our grandmothers did. Saurav would have wanted you to begin again, to carry on. Come to America, Uma … it would be so nice.” Uma noted a sadness in his voice. It was his wife who had wanted to go to America, not Rupam. Rupam had always been happy in India. “What of Supriya?” Uma asked. He hesitated. “It was she who first mentioned it,” he said at last. “She said, ‘India is no place for a widow.’” “She said that?” “Don’t you remember that her own mother was widowed?”
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The next morning, Uma woke up with that thought in her head. India is no place for a widow. She told him over breakfast that she would like to go to America, but she would absolutely not come unless Supriya invited her. A few weeks later, Uma received a warm invitation from Supriya, stating that she was terribly busy and was so looking forward to having a sister in the house with her. Enclosed was also a list, written in Rupam’s careful print, of nearby graduate programs in English Literature that she could research during her visit. She gently refolded the letter and tucked it into a tin box, where she’d begun to keep her most important small possessions. Not long after that she began to tell her friends and neighbors that she was going to America. For the next year, all talk and mental preparation was directed towards her move. She began to separate from her surroundings. It was hardest in the evenings when she relaxed with Meeradi and Dada and her nieces who begged her not to go. It was easiest when her father-‐in-‐law demanded a foot massage and seized the opportunity to rub his toes against her breasts. They finally hired a young man, with a healthy streak of assertiveness, to be his full-‐time attendant. She was cleared for immigration in August of 1973. As she waited with her tearful sister-‐in-‐law at Dom Dom Airport, a middle-‐aged émigré fell dead from a heart attack. The man lay on the floor for five hours before officials came to pick him up. Uma watched the lifeless man, dressed in a formal brown suit, and thought about her husband. She was glad to be leaving this dying country. She would soon be on a long island, surrounded by white sand beaches and ocean breezes. She imagined her nephews running barefooted, darkened by the sun, laughing on their way to the sea. How different it would be from her own cramped and sheltered childhood in Calcutta. But as her fellow passengers gathered to board her flight, Meeradi hugged her tightly and would not let go. Uma cried, missing her as soon as they parted. The first leg of her journey was an agonizing stretch of sorrow and worry. In the air she had a heightened sense of loneliness and vulnerability. She only managed the remainder of the journey with glasses of whiskey and a set of ear phones. She listened to the American pop music channel to stimulate her imagination. By the time they landed her heart raced with anticipation.
When she entered the Kennedy Airport terminal lobby, she allowed herself a moment to be impressed by the grandeur of the room and its magnificent glass ceiling, the beauty of its clean lines. It was sterile but warm, like a green house or atrium. “So much nicer that Dom Dom,” she thought. “Geniuses of architecture.” Then she looked for her brother among the crowd of Indian expatriates waiting for their loved ones. She was tired and overwhelmed by all the faces, and as her eyes swept over them they all looked familiar somehow, familiar yet non-‐descript, and so out of place in this modern facility. She worried that she might not recognize her brother, that he might not be anymore familiar to her than the other young men looking out to the aisle. She grew nervous as the crowd thinned and Rupam still had not appeared. She heard “Didi” called out several times, but never in his voice. Then she saw him, smiling broadly, rushing towards her. He greeted her with a touch on the arm and apologized for being late. Slouching and awkward, he quickly led her to the baggage claim, asking her formal questions about the flight and service, relaxing only slightly by the time they had all of her luggage in tow. Uma understood his self-‐ consciousness. She, too, felt strangely shy. Rupam stacked her two suitcases in the back of a long brown car that he called a station wagon. “It is like a wagon!” exclaimed Uma. The ride was smooth and fast. “How sleek. Nothing like an Ambassador, eh?” Rupam laughed. “How clean and wide the streets are.” She read the large green street signs out loud -‐ Grand Central Parkway, Long Island Expressway, This Lane Only – until she realized how irritating that might be to the driver. She told Rupam how much she looked forward to exploring the island with the children. He laughed endlessly at that. “Why do you laugh? “ “Didi, there’s nothing much to explore.” “Is the seaside not closeby?” she asked. “Not within walking. You will see the island is rather plain.” The car slowed down as they approached his neighborhood. He pointed out the hospital, and a large building called Pathmark. “You will go
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there,” he promised. “Truly astounding, Didi! You have never seen so much food.” When they turned onto Rupam’s street, she saw neat rows of rectangular houses. The trees were quite small, with delicate, thin trunks and sparse leaves. Although Uma loved the lush, gigantic banana and banyan trees behind her husband’s house, and the patches of shade that they gave to the scorching flat rooftop, she could appreciate the newness of this landscape, populated with young trees smooth and sprouting with possibility. And instead of regarding it as plain, she liked the uniformity of the street. Each house on Berkshire Road had windows and doors in the same place, with a color palette ranging from gray to white, the distance between each house just as predictable and orderly. To her, it represented the absence of chaos. Rupam’s house looked small from the outside but she was surprised at how spacious it was. It seemed to be the opposite of the massive concrete extended family homes she knew, which were so much more cramped than the majesty of their exteriors would suggest. He gave her a quick tour of the house. The front door opened into a corridor, with three bedrooms on the right and a bathroom at the far end. To the left, a wide doorway led to a long living room lit by a large window, so large it nearly took up the expanse of the front wall. The kitchen was large and flowed from the living room. Everything was modern and clean. “Come downstairs,” said Rupam. “This is why I chose this house.” He opened a door at the back of the kitchen and revealed a set of stairs descending into darkness. “Where are you taking me?” she asked. He switched on a light, took her arm, and guided her down. “We call this a cellar,” he said. Then Uma could see why he was so excited. This “cellar” was a lovely expansive room, with a wet bar on one side, couches and a television in the far corner, and a ping pong table. “Table tennis! I challenge you to a match!” she said. “After dinner, let the games begin!” As they walked up the cellar stairs, he explained that Supriya would get off her shift at 5 and pick up the children from the babysitter on the way home. “Babysitter?” asked Uma. “Ayah,” he explained. “You won’t be needing an ayah anymore. I shall look after the children.”
“Yes, Didi,” he said happily. “It will help us tremendously.” Uma took her first shower, then changed into a new white sari. She didn’t normally wear white, but she decided to dress conservatively, as this was the first time Supriya would see her as a widow. She gathered the gifts out of the suitcase and brought them into the living room, where Rupam was sitting on the couch, reading the newspaper. He looked up at her. “Feeling refreshed?” “Wonderful.” Rupam looked at his watch while she placed the gifts on the coffee table. Moments later, three short honks of a car horn caused Rupam to jump to his feet. “There they are,” he said. Uma dropped her bag of gifts and watched out the window as her sister-‐in-‐law slid a shiny red car into the driveway and parked it behind the station wagon. Supriya emerged from the car, still dressed in her white physician’s coat, her hair styled in neat modern layers, looking older and more angular than Uma remembered. Rupam rushed out the door, said something to his wife, and then opened the rear door of the car. Two boys tumbled out. The first one had to be Shanti, the elder one. He was seven years old, long and skinny, followed by the short and plump tot named Joy, who was nearly three. The contrast between them amused Uma. With a bubbling euphoria she awaited the moment of introduction. They seemed so delightful. Supriya and Rupam then moved to the boot of the car and pulled out a series of bulging brown paper bags. With her nerves bursting, Uma left the window and went out to offer her assistance, but they nudged her away with a great deal of protest, refusing to hand her a single bag. Slowly they all made their way inside, with the boys leading the way. Shanti stole curious glances at Uma, while Joy studied the movement of his feet as he walked up the path, oblivious to anything else. Back in the living room, the boys stopped and stared at the pile of gifts on the coffee table. “Are those for us?” asked Shanti. His parents scolded him. “Is that how you greet your Uma Pishi?” The boy squirmed under his father’s reproachful gaze until suddenly, as if he’d been pricked with a sharp stick, he shot over to Uma and hugged
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her. Uma laughed and patted his head. “Well, of course, these are for you.” Supriya threw off her coat, dumped the bags onto the kitchen table, and emptied them at incredible speed. Rupam could not keep up, and by the time he’d put a few cans of peas away, she had completely cleared the table. “Let me help,” said Uma. “That will be no help at all. Too many cooks spoil the broth.” Uma looked back at the boys. The older one had taken a seat on the carpet, his eyes fixed on the gifts. She began to give them out, all the while distracted by the frenzy of activity in the kitchen – gathering, washing, chopping, stirring, in quick succession. Uma had never witnessed such productivity in all her life. She gave Shanti a set of Indian comic books, a book of folktales (both written in English), and a book of Bengali nonsense rhymes. Rupam demonstrated what he must have thought to be an appropriate level of enthusiasm, carrying on about his childhood spent reading these books. For the little one, Uma revealed a stuffed doll -‐ a man wearing a turban and formal Indian suit. “Aaaah,” said Rupam, “the Air India man.” Shanti, looking rather longingly at the Air India man in his Maharaja’s suit and turban, handed it to his little brother. “Look what you got,” he said. Joy was sitting with one arm slung over the edge of the couch, the other arm a mere extension of the thumb in his mouth. Slowly he reached for the doll and wrapped his stubby fingers around its leg. With his thumb still perched in his mouth, his lips tightened into a smile. “I guess he wants it,” said Shanti. “Does he not speak yet?” Uma asked. Joy had dropped the Air India man onto his lap, already disinterested. Uma realized her mistake only after an extended silence. The question came out as an expression of disbelief, but Uma hadn’t meant anything by it. It was just that, in India, three-‐year-‐olds were such chatterboxes. They talked too much! Uncomfortably she rummaged through her other gifts, finally pulling out a sari and placing it on the coffee table. “I hope you like the design. All the ladies are wearing it in Calcutta.” Supriya stepped into the living room. “How gorgeous,” she said, then hurried back to her cooking. 79
Soon they sat down to an elaborate dinner of fish curry, okra, lentils, potato cutlets, and rice pulao. Surpriya smiled when Uma praised her cooking. “A genuine smile,” Uma thought, “makes her look lovely.” “I was planning to make biryani, but I couldn’t find the time to get the ingredients,” said Supriya. “Oh, nonsense. Why go through all that trouble? This is wonderful.” Just then, the phone rang. Supriya sprang up from her chair to rinse off her hands and answer it. Excusing herself, she pulled the spiral chord as far out to the living room as she could, where she spoke in a calm, hushed, professional tone. Rupam explained that she was on call. That evening, Uma and Rupam stayed up much too late, reminiscing in the cellar, playing table tennis, and drinking whiskey, which he brought out when they started talking about their favorite uncle. “Chotomama,” they called him. Little Uncle. He lived half the year in India and half the year in London. Uma and Rupam used to accompany him to the Saturday Club, an old colonial club that had remained much as the British had left it, except that now it was brown men barking orders at servants. There Chotomama always gave her a taste of his whiskey. He thought women should be liberated. Rupam and Supriya spent a few days showing Uma around and getting her acquainted with the tasks that would be set aside for her. These were laundry, dusting, cooking, washing dishes, “babysitting” Joy, cleaning the bathroom and cellar, vacuuming, and keeping toys in order. Uma appreciated the modern appliances, which made these chores painless, but still she did not do them as fastidiously as Supriya wanted. After a few weeks, Supriya complained about the underwear not being folded. Uma said, “I would prefer not to handle the underclothes for longer than necessary!” Supriya did not find it funny. The next day, Uma presented her with towers of exquisitely folded underwear. Of all her chores, Uma most enjoyed grocery day. On Saturdays, Rupam drove her to the Pathmark to fill her cart with whatever she needed to cook that week. It was her only regular outing. Her brother pointed out to her on one occasion that people were staring at her. “They are probably wondering why you are dressed so formally. Why don’t you wear the pants suit I bought you?” Uma did not confess that she found pants to be the most uncomfortable item of clothing ever
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invented. She did not like the itchy polyester between her legs. She preferred to feel her smooth thighs rubbing against each other. Furthermore, the pants highlighted her ever so slight belly – most unflattering. On an October afternoon, Uma and Joy sat on the couch in front of the window. Some of the leaves on the painfully thin trees had faded to yellow. She had been hearing much about the autumn colors and looked forward to the turning of the leaves, as if it would be a thunderous event. Not a sound came from inside the house, except for her nephew’s gentle breathing. If the world were to end that day, she would have no warning. The stillness would just continue forever. Uma finished washing and drying the clothes. She folded them precisely. She vacuumed the carpet, washed the breakfast dishes, and dusted the furniture with an orange feather duster. She fed Joy and prepared a snack for Shanti to eat after school. She did her morning chores slowly and deliberately, doing and redoing to make sure every speck was lifted and every corner tucked, but this only ate up an extra hour. There was still the entire afternoon to fill. She could have gone downstairs to clean the basement, or gotten an early start on dinner, but this was her daily dilemma. She wanted to be busy, but not busy with that sort of work. Domesticity for the sake of it bored her. By now, she had read every book in the house. It was a sparse collection, mostly medical books and children’s picture books. She wrote Meeradi a letter last week and asked her if she could afford to send her one very long, very good Bengali novel. She lamented that this was not a very literary household and most of her time was spent with a mute. There was nothing left to do except sleep, at only 1:00 in the afternoon. Joy lay on the couch next to her, staring up at the ceiling, sucking his thumb. Occasionally, he shifted his eyes slightly to catch her watching him. No reaction. She wondered what words, what thoughts, what pictures were behind those eyes. Those beautiful eyes. She floated in their obsidian pools, until he closed his lids and pushed her out. Rupam said they were indeed concerned about him, but the pediatrician assured them that he was neurologically fine, that he was simply experiencing a developmental delay. “You know, Uma, children here are allowed to develop in their own time,” he said. What else was there to do except sleep? She sank back into the large cushions of the couch and closed her eyes.
She felt a tiny grip on her knee as Joy struggled to climb onto her lap. She helped him up and resumed her position, trying to take her mind back to where it was before it was snatched back to this couch. He laid his head against Uma’s chest. She opened her eyes, distracted by his little fingers weaving in and out of her gold bangles. She patted his back, and then placed her arm around him, her hand resting on his thigh. She closed her eyes again. She was comfortable finally. Once she always felt like this, able to settle into rest easily, even in daylight, even with the din of the Calcutta streets filtering into her bedroom. In a house full of activity she could lay with her husband and enjoy his tongue on her breasts. Her body could accept so much then. There were no barren places, no corner that could not be touched. His hands belonged to her. She stirred slightly. Joy got tired of the bangles and moved to her necklace. She put her hand over his and held it there gently. A moment later she sat up abruptly, nearly spilling the little boy onto the floor. She removed Joy from her lap and wrapped her sweater tightly over her bosom. It was the sudden awareness of his fingers on her skin that alarmed her. Moments earlier she had been thinking of her husband so vividly. Joy seemed puzzled by her behavior but not disturbed. He stared at Uma for a while, then moved on to play listlessly with his toys. She went on with her day without fully shaking her disorientation. At 3:00 she walked out to the sidewalk to make sure the school bus had arrived. She gave Shanti and Joy a snack of toast and jam, helped Shanti with his homework, and sat with the children in front of the TV for an hour until Supriya and Rupam came home. At 6:00 she served dinner and listened to them talk about the hospital. “The dinner is quite good, tonight,” said Supriya. The compliment bothered Uma. She had been cooking for years, after all. Were dinners on other evenings not “quite good?” To avoid making a cutting remark, Uma asked Supriya what she would like to eat for dinner tomorrow. “Up to you,” Supriya answered. After dinner, Uma asked Rupam to play a game of table tennis, but he said, “Not tonight, Didi, I’m beat.” Shanti wanted to play, so they played a few games consisting mainly of Uma hitting the ball and Shanti
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retrieving it from the floor. His mother called down at half past eight and told him it was time for bed. “Do I have to?” he begged. It was Uma who tucked him in and read to him from Abol Tabol, the Bengali book of nonsense rhymes. At the end of each poem, he asked her to read another one. They enjoyed their time together. That unsettled feeling she’d had all day was finally leaving her. At 9:30, Rupam poked his head in and said, “No more stalling. Time for bed.” Uma wondered why everything had to be so regimented. In Calcutta she would just be sitting down to dinner at this time. How she missed that evening chatter. The house fell into silence, but she could not sleep. At midnight she crept down to the basement and drank a swallow of whiskey, right from the bottle so that she wouldn’t have to wash a glass. When she put the bottle down, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror that lined the wall behind the bar. The light was a muted orange, and it cast a flattering glow upon her face, highlighting her strong cheekbones and large, dark eyes. She had not looked at herself for a very long time. She ran her fingers along her eyebrows, then along the gentle curves beneath her eyes, over her full lips and along her jaw and down her neck, remembering caresses long gone. The next day, after her chores, she sat on the couch again and thought about her life in India, trying to remember what she’d been busy doing all those years. She sometimes felt that Supriya looked down on her for not having children. What excuse did she have really? Beside Saurav’s ambivalence, she had her own worries about raising children in India, causing Uma hesitate again and again. She didn’t know that her opportunities would come to such an abrupt end. Suddenly her chest tightened. She was overcome with a feeling that this house was suffocating her. She leapt up and rushed to her room, where she opened her suitcase and took out twenty of the two hundred dollars that she was allowed to bring into the country, none of which she had spent yet. She dressed Joy in his coat and hat and put her own wool coat over her yellow sari, and out the door they went. Her heart beat very quickly. She decided to walk to the Pathmark. By now she had memorized the route and felt she could handle crossing Stewart Avenue. She could pick Joy up and carry him across the four lanes. There was a grassy median in case they didn’t make it in one go.
She allowed Joy to set the pace for a few minutes. He stopped to look at many things, and she would name them for him – black car, bird on a bush. He frowned at her as if she was disturbing his meditations. But when they turned a corner they both stopped to stare at something wondrous, a large tree plumed with fiery red leaves. As they stood there a generous offering fell to their feet. Joy crouched down, picked up the reddest leaf, and examined it on all sides. He then gifted it to Uma. At that moment two boys rode by on their bicycles. By now Uma was used to the intent stares of the locals. She watched them ride away and heard the one say incredulously to the other, “Niggers.” She could not hear the response. The street was empty and quiet again. Worried that they might return, she picked up Joy and hesitated for a moment, but she would not turn back now. They were only boys, she told herself. She went on towards Stewart Avenue. When they got there she felt daunted by the cars whizzing by. With the leaf still between her fingers, she held Joy in one arm and picked up the folds of her sari with the other. She waited breathlessly for the first break in traffic, and then lunged forward. Joy grasped her neck tightly as they ran across the street. The running and traffic and air of adventure created a rush of euphoria. She saw a happy glimmer in Joy’s eyes, too, his pudgy cheeks inflated from smiling. Safely on the other side she put Joy down and they stumbled, hand in hand, towards the store, entering through the automatic door that still amazed her. She led Joy to the aisle that she’d been dreaming of -‐ the book aisle holding four shelves of Harlequin romances and paperback bestsellers. There she lingered, reading the backs of all of the books while Joy sat on the floor and flipped through a collection of thin Disney fairytales with cardboard covers. She ultimately chose a fat mystery novel for herself and Pinocchio for Joy. As she spent her first American dollars, she noticed that she was not thinking of India so much today. She had enjoyed the walk, and now was looking forward to bedtime, when she could lie back and read. It was 2:30. She had plenty of time to get home for Shanti’s bus if she carried Joy most of the way. She spotted a liquor store across the parking lot and decided to make a quick stop, in case she had trouble sleeping again tonight. When they came out of the liquor store, she picked up Joy and traveled quickly. It was difficult to carry him, the leaf, the books, and the bottle of
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whiskey, especially with her cumbersome wool coat. She stopped to put the bag of whiskey into her deep left pocket and give the leaf back to Joy. The walk home seemed to take much longer. She picked up her pace when she saw Shanti’s empty school bus driving past her, but she told herself that she was only a few minutes late, and that Shanti would wait for her on the stoop. He was not one to complain. She stopped, dismayed, when she saw Supriya’s car in the driveway. Not quite believing her eyes, she put Joy down and told him to run home. She continued slowly, wishing she could be hit by a car rather than face a tongue-‐lashing from her younger brother’s wife. She had been enjoying the day so much. Uma entered the living room and found Supriya on the couch crying, holding Shanti who was stiff and bleary-‐eyed. Supriya looked up, her mascara spilling into the lines beneath her eyes. “Where have you been?” she yelled. “I have been calling the house for two hours.” Joy walked over to his mother and stood by her legs. With a dramatic moan Supriya swept him up into her arms. Uma took her coat off. “I took Joy for a walk.” “A two hour walk, in this cold? Where on earth did you go?” “We went to the Pathmark.” “To the Pathmark? You took my son across Stewart Avenue to go to the Pathmark? That is more than a walk, Didi. How can you be so reckless?” Uma knew she had no authority here. She didn’t answer. Supriya was now holding Joy in her lap and kissing him. “Your cheeks are frigid,” she said. Shanti looked like he wanted to be anywhere but here. Uma spoke to him. “I’m sorry you had to wait, Shanti. Were you very frightened?” He wrinkled his nose. “Baba’s late all the time.” Turning to his smother he asked, “Can I go watch TV downstairs?” “Take Joy with you,” said Supriya. Joy jumped off the couch and started to follow his brother, but turned back suddenly. He ran to his coat, which was now sprawled across the middle cushion of the couch, and reached into his pocket to pull out the red leaf, a bit crumpled now. He held it up proudly. “I found it,” he said in a clear but childlike voice, a voice that suited him perfectly. He dropped it into his mother’s lap and
ran away, through the kitchen, down the stairs. Supriya stared at the leaf, speechless. Uma smiled. “Why do you worry so? All is well.” Supriya shook her head and buried her face in her hands. “I am so tired. Didi, do you have any idea how tired I am?” Uma longed to be tired, the kind of tired that would make her feel like she was put on earth for a purpose. She stood there shifting on her feet, wondering if she should sit down next to Supriya and try to comfort her. She decided not to. Supriya uncovered her face and looked fiercely at Uma. “He was on the verge of talking. It could have happened at any time.” “Of course,” said Uma. “Do you think my job is easy? I don’t have time to play with him and take him for walks. I wish I did.” Uma shook her head. “I know that. No one has judged you for it.” Supriya started to cry again. “I think you’re a wonderful mother,” continued Uma, “and a wonderful doctor.” “Oh, for heaven’s sake, what do you know about either of those things?” She pulled a tissue out of her medical jacket and blew her nose. “Your presence weighs on me.” Uma began to tremble with anger. She was not sure why Supriya wanted to provoke her so unkindly, but how she wanted to strangle this woman. “That’s rather melodramatic,” said Uma, trying to seem unaffected. “I am only telling you my feelings. Your brother made the decision, not me. We were perfectly happy before you came.” There was nothing for Uma to say. She didn’t want to hear any more. “Rupam convinced me that you would come to help. He convinced me that it would help me relax…I would feel less tired.” Supriya squeezed her eyes shut, letting two large teardrops fall down her cheek. “But you don’t make me less tired. You make me more tired.” “But what of the letter? You wrote me a letter, inviting me.” “How would it have looked if I hadn’t?”
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“How can you be so unfeeling? Aren’t you the one who said India is no place for a widow?” Even as she said it, she realized that Rupam had lied to her. “I never said that. My mother is a widow. She lives a fine life.” Uma felt a hollow wind run through her veins. “Then,” she said quietly, “I was brought here under false circumstances. It is for you to discuss with Rupam, not with me.” The silence told her that there was some truth to what she said. What sort of life would this be, being the subject of other people’s disagreements? She imagined herself storming into her room and packing her bags, but her husband’s home seemed very far away, and no longer a place to return to. “I shouldn’t have left the house. It was careless of me,” she confessed, although it pained her to say it. Surpriya was sitting back on the couch, her head resting on a cushion. Her expression did not change at first, but in the end, she seemed satisfied with the admission of guilt. Finally she sat up, her lids swollen and red, her eyes glazed. “What did you buy, anyway?” she asked. Uma could not believe her luck. The whiskey was still in her coat pocket. She opened the bag at her feet and pulled out the two books. “I suppose there isn’t much to read in this house,” Supriya said. “We don’t have much time for pleasure reading.” Uma nodded. Supriya lifted herself off the couch. “I’m exhausted. I’m going for a nap.” Uma could not let her go without one last comment. “Your son saved his first words for you. Isn’t that wonderful?” While stepping towards the hallway she answered, “Perhaps I shall enjoy it after some rest.” Rupam came home long after dinner, but Uma could not face him. He and Supriya had a hushed conversation in their bedroom. She could not make out any words. Eventually they faded. Her thoughts were loud in the quiet of her room. She stared at an oil painting of a Rocky Mountain scene across from her bed. The painting had none of the familiar colors of warm weather places – the blues, the yellows, the oranges, the reds. She wondered why an Indian family 87
would put up a painting that was so hostile to the Indian aesthetic. It filled her with such bitterness that she got up and took the painting off its hooks and put it down. She returned to the bed to enjoy the bare wall, but this was just as menacing. She then picked up her mystery novel but could not concentrate. Her doorknob suddenly turned, clumsily, from a slippery pair of hands losing their grip. Uma stayed in bed. She knew that Joy would turn it far enough eventually. That knob was stubborn and always gave him trouble. Joy tumbled in and climbed into bed with her, grabbing the only available pillow and knocking his forehead against it in a steady rhythm. Uma watched him for a while. He always did this when he tried to get to sleep. It was such strange behavior that she feared it would cause him brain damage. She even tried it herself, to understand the range of movements involved and assess the risks. She found that it didn’t hurt at all if the pillow was fluffy, though it did put a strain on the neck and cause discomfort to the forehead. At any rate, he liked it and there was no stopping him. Uma saw him this time with a new appreciation. He came into the room with such a purposeful regard for what he wanted. He wanted to go back to sleep. He wanted to go back to sleep next to his Uma Pishi. He only expended the energy that he wished to use, no more and no less. Finally, he rested his head on the pillow, and his breathing settled, a feathery snore escaping from his tiny nose. Uma smiled and pulled up the blanket to cover his legs. She rubbed his back. She sang him a love song. Soja mere laal Soja Soja mere laal Go to sleep My love Go to sleep
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RANDA JARRAR Interviewed by Christine Lee Zilka
I first met Randa at Hedgebrook, where after weeks of almost clichéd grim writing discussion at the dinner table, she arrived and made a ribald joke. I forget the joke, but I didn’t forget the laughter. She’d broken my laughter drought—two weeks without laughter (that’s a long time). Reading her book, A Map of Home, reminds me of that day—when Randa walked in and shifted the mood. She means to do the same with her novel, bringing in a fresh voice and perspective to Arab American literature, via a spunky and foul-‐mouthed Arab American protagonist named Nidali. And she succeeds. I fell in love with Nidali, I could follow her sassy soul for hundreds of pages. Being so close to the author, I read the book and could hear (in my head, for there is no book on tape yet) Randa’s voice narrating the words to me. I laughed I cried—I wondered if Randa should be writing comedy, and I wondered if Randa should be writing tragedy. And yet the narration is neither comedy nor tragedy, leading to the kind of complexity readers crave. The humor is informed by sadness and struggle (and not incidentally, Nidali’s very name means “struggle”). The humor is effective because it has layers of meaning, because we know what it is trying to deflect, and because it drives us forward in a 89
narrative that is, in the end, unflinching in its honesty. I mean, seriously—when Nidali writes a letter to Saddam Hussein bitching him out for displacing her family—it is an outrageous act of hilarity and tragedy. Read on to hear what Randa has to say about her writing process, about how she sees Nidali years from now, about the writing life. Randa Jarrar’s debut novel, A Map of Home, has been translated into numerous languages and won the Hopwood Award at the University of Michigan, where she earned her MFA. Randa’s short fiction has appeared in Ploughshares, Hunger Mountain, Duck & Herring, Eyeshot, online, and in numerous anthologies. Her translations from the Arabic have appeared in numerous anthologies including Words Without Borders: The World Through the Eyes of Writers. She translated the acclaimed Lebanese novel, Year of the Revolutionary New Bread-Making Machine (Saqi/Telegram Books). ZILKA: What is a typical day in your life as a writer? JARRAR: Well, I'm not writing as much as I used to because now I'm teaching, but I still consider that part of being a writer. I need to teach to buy myself time to write. ZILKA: Regarding teaching as a writer-‐-‐do you think teaching enriches you as a writer? If so, in what ways? What are some things you've learned about writing pre and post teaching...pre and post MFA? Or do you think writing is unrelated to those activities? JARRAR: I think teaching has made me guard my writing time more. Or at least be aware of how lucky those are who don't have to teach. Don't get me wrong, I love teaching creative writing. From my students, I learned that revision and passion should go hand in hand. They're inspiring because they're so young and yet they are able to find rich meaning in literature and to express their own truths in their own words.
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ZILKA: You recently bought a typewriter-‐-‐what is your relationship with the medium with which you write? JARRAR: It's really important to me to have a tactile sense of my own writing. My hands hurt when I write longhand, and then, too, my handwriting is illegible. I love my computer, but it feels untrustworthy, and I am too tough on myself to just let things go and write. So, for a while I was dimming my screen and writing that way. It worked for a while, but then my fiancé suggested a typewriter when my iBook started acting up. What I love about the typewriter is that it forces you to start sentences over, if you really really care, or let them go until revision. But again, see answer to question above if you're curious about how much I use it these days. ZILKA: You have said that A Map Of Home was drawn from the characters in your own life. And you have also, in other interviews, expressed how you "freak out" about whether your parents will read it (you have since updated your readers with news about your parents delight with your book). But it is said that writing isn't worth anything unless you offend someone. Were you conscious of the possibility of being offensive while writing your novel? JARRAR: Absolutely! I have always been cranky with the way Arabs I knew were prudes, both about sexuality and profanity, so I intentionally wanted to bust taboos. And by the way, I recently found out that my parents had serious issues with the sexuality in my book. They think it's "bronographia." They crack my shit up. ZILKA: That's pretty funny-‐-‐"bronographia"-‐-‐what is audience reaction from the rest of the Arab and Arab American community? Your book is also translated into Hebrew for the Israeli audience-‐-‐what do you know of the Israeli reception of your book? JARRAR: My favorite emails have come from young Arab-‐American girls who felt a strong sense of validation from the book. And I wrote this book partly for them. I did a reading for a group of young Arab-‐ American students and they were fascinated with how I flouted my parents' authority. They love that.
It hasn't come out in Israel yet, but I'm looking forward to it! ZILKA: How do you see Nidali twenty years from now? I mean, if she were really real… JARRAR: Nidali is sassy, creative, resourceful, independent, ambitious, insightful, and funny as hell. In twenty years, I see her writing articles and novels and living with a sexy girlfriend or boyfriend in New York. ZILKA: You have mentioned that a number of editors asked you to revise your novel and you refused. Reading your novel today, I can't see which parts you could have edited out (perhaps Nidali's college essays?). Can you tell me what they wanted edited out that you fought to keep? And why? JARRAR: Well, they wanted the book to be something it's not: more reflective, with an older narrator, and an "arc." It's just not the book I set out to write. It was really important to me that Nidali's voice grow over the years, and I'm glad that some reviewers got that. I think in the end each writer knows what they're willing to change, and for me, this book got better and better with time, thanks to several people's input as opposed to a single editor's vision. ZILKA: A Map of Home is HILARIOUS as well as heartbreaking. When did you realize that you were funny? JARRAR: You know what? I realized it while I was writing the earlier drafts of this novel. That's one thing I'll always love this novel for. ZILKA: Your writing gives the impression of your being a natural writer enjoying yourself. Is that really happening? Do you have fun while writing? As a reader, I get a very strong sense that you might even be laughing or chuckling while getting those words down. JARRAR: Definitely. I was still chuckling when I was reading the proofs of the novel. That's when I knew I had it right. I enjoy myself immensely. Writing is when I feel most joyous, most independent, and most alive.
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ZILKA: What have you discovered about yourself in writing your first novel, especially one that in so many ways was drawn from your own life? JARRAR: See above! Also, I realized that I write as a coping strategy. It's how I make sense of the world and ensure my own survival. ZILKA: There are the old phrases, "life imitates art" and "art imitates life." Given that the book is drawn from your own life-‐-‐in what ways do you see your art influencing your life these days? JARRAR: Well, I remember when I was writing the novel my friends said I transformed into Nidali, not vice-‐versa. The novel is mostly fiction. It's based loosely on my historical, cultural, and geographical background. Anyway, while I was writing it I was broke, and I was renting my phone line from a cheap ass rental place in South Austin. I was registered under Nidali Ammar. So at any point you could have looked her name up in the white pages and found...me. Nowadays, I think my art influences my life by literally forcing me to think about how I'm going to continue creating over the years. It's a boring answer, but it's the truth. I spend a lot of time taking notes and daydreaming, but I spend the majority of my free time applying to jobs, residencies, and grants. ZILKA: A Map of Home is written as a bildungsroman-‐-‐and told from a narrator who is profane, irreverent, and charming. In many ways it tries to endear itself to the reader with the narrator and her intense humor. But in what ways do you see your writing as activist? JARRAR: I just wanted to see a representation of Arabs and Arab Americans I could relate to. If I've written a book that a young girl, or woman, or man, finds familiar, then I've succeeded. ZILKA: Do you experience any differences between writing your first novel and writing your subsequent books (i.e., a short story collection and now your second novel)? How do you transition between writing short stories and the novel? Do you write them in parallel? Or do you find you cannot write one while writing the other?
JARRAR: I wrote a few stories while I was writing the novel. I basically wrote whatever I felt like: so, on the days I wanted to work on a story, I just did that, and then if I wanted to work on the novel, I did. Afterwards, I couldn't start a new novel yet, and I found story-‐writing more appealing. At Hedgebrook, I decided I wanted to write a collection. So I set about writing a few a year, and two years and many revisions later, the collection was complete. Now, I am finding it difficult to focus on a new novel, but I hear that's common. I've decided to go back to the playful method I undertook with A Map of Home. I'll let you know how it goes, but I'm optimistic! ZILKA: What are you reading these days? JARRAR: I just read J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace and The Gathering by Ann Enright. Very serious books. Loved them both. They explore grief and letting go in a way I find admirable and enviable. ZILKA: Can you give us a glimpse of what you're working on next? JARRAR: I've just finished a collection of stories, and I'm working on a new novel. Some days it's serious, and others, it's funny. I'll struggle with it until I get the tone right. And when I do, we'll be on a roll...
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ALEXANDER CHEE Interviewed by Christine Lee Zilka
Usually, one’s first impression of a writer is through his or her published book. You read the book and wonder about the mind from which those words stem. Does the author have a mean streak, is the author compassionate, is the author selfish, or is the author kind? As a reader, I like to think that I can glimpse the writer through the gauzy curtain of the words. There he is, a shadowy figure behind the milky fabric. My first impression of Alexander Chee was gained before reading his book, Edinburgh. I met Alexander Chee through our blogs. Between both some short-‐term memory issues and the passage of time, I have forgotten whether he visited my blog first, or I, his. I remember we began commenting, and through that, built a weird correspondence, with the strange kind of intimacy only bloggers can understand. Bonding…solely through words? We had never met in real life (still haven’t). Alexander is intense, he’s generous, he’s intelligent, he’s dark and he’s funny. He’s also remarkably honest and hard on himself, as great artists tend to be. I read his book, Edinburgh. Read it after I’d “met” him. Like watching a movie after reading the book, but…without the letdown. Edinburgh is a
beautiful and dark book, the kind of book that expertly stops short of unbearable agony and instead steers the reader through meditative tragedy. What would my impressions of him have been, if I’d read Edinburgh before knowing him? The book is dark, beautiful, musical, and tragic. The characters are strong and also fragile. Is that Alexander Chee? And now I hope that those of you who have read his work might gain insight into his process and opinions and thoughts (on the subjects of his writing process, teaching writing, and the craft of writing )…and perhaps for many of you this is your first impression of Alexander Chee, and you will be enamored of his mind, as I have been, to then go and read his work. Alexander Chee is a poet, essayist, and fiction writer who has received numerous awards, including the Asian American Writers Workshop Literary Award, the Lambda Editor’s Choice Prize, a Whiting Award, and an NEA fellowship. His first novel, Edinburgh, was published in 2002. His upcoming novel, entitled The Queen of The Night is forthcoming. ON WRITING AND PROCESS ZILKA: When and what determined you to become a writer? CHEE: I think the two came sort of together when I was a student at Wesleyan. I was in Annie Dillard's class, and I went to my mailbox where I found an essay I'd written marked up one side and down the other. And there was, as the last line of all of this response, "I was up thinking about this all night..." And I remember thinking I kept Annie Dillard awake with something I wrote? Maybe I can do this. ZILKA: Regarding the inspiring comments you got from Annie Dillard: You're an MFA professor/teacher. I am guessing you do a lot of writing critique-‐-‐how do you approach critiquing students versus peer writing?
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CHEE: Annie taught us to try and turn into the writers we are, and that's what I try to do as a teacher. I teach from the point of view that at some point I won't be there-‐-‐-‐I remember being in Deborah Eisenberg's workshop and a student in my class saying to her, "What will I do without you to edit me, Deborah?" and I thought it was about the worst thing I'd ever heard. So I teach so that no one ever says that to me. I teach them to edit themselves, teach them a process by which they can find and look with courage at their own ideas. I teach them to turn into themselves. I'm not interested in getting mail from students 8 years out with attachments and the message "could you just read this for me?" because I have new former students at a rate of about 40-‐50 a year. I've been teaching since 1996. ZILKA: You once stated that you wrote much of your first novel, Edinburgh, on the subway between Brooklyn and Manhattan. Where did you write most of your upcoming novel? Do you continue to write on the subway? Can you write anywhere? And what do you think is most crucial to an effective writing environment? CHEE: The new book began when I was in New York. I wrote a great deal of it in Brooklyn, and then later in Manhattan, in a friend's apartment on 3rd and 19th, on the 19th floor, which made me feel like I was hidden in the sky. I wrote Edinburgh on the subway partly out of necessity-‐-‐-‐there were only so many hours in a day-‐-‐-‐but also, I think if your idea is alive enough, it just sort of downloads when it's ready and you have to pay attention. I still get a great deal of writing done on trains, planes and subways. I can write anywhere I feel hidden or lost to myself, where I feel like either I can't be found or I can't be known. To write I need to be a little fugitive to myself. I've since written a great deal of the second novel here in Amherst, much of it in Frost Library. A professor here gave me use of his carrel in the library for my first year here, with keys to the library at night. That was perfect. I would walk in and shut the door and feel like no one could find me. ZILKA: Some writers say their novels come out of a short story that won't end, and others begin writing with a novel in mind. How do you begin writing a novel? 97
CHEE: I think novels are something you come down with, like an illness. Edinburgh was something I gradually realized I was writing, if that made any sense, whereas The Queen of the Night began quickly, and even urgently. And Saint Spencer of the Lost, which will be the third novel, began as a story that afterwards I regarded skeptically. I asked, “You're not a story, are you?” And I realized it was a novel, and that I wasn't smart enough to write it just yet. Every few years I'd ask myself, am I smart enough? And then recently dug in. This may be hubris. We won't know for a while. ZILKA: Regarding your projects in progress: How much of your work do you throw away? How much do you keep? Do you ever throw away, do you always keep? What are you focused on working on, next? CHEE: This morning, with some dull sadness, I looked again at a draft of something I wrote in the 90s. And thought, I should finish this. I keep everything. I have boxes of notebooks in my basement, I have files on files, I have a slippery pile of receipts with short ideas on them. Today I worked on an essay about studying with Annie. I'm also working on the ending of the second novel, approaching it with some fear and excitement, both. And I've been working on something I'm calling Family Book, a nonfiction novel, as it were-‐-‐-‐a kind of memoir structured as a novel and with some invented scenes (that are acknowledges as such). It was inspired by an evening with my late father's older brother who turned to me suddenly with great force and said, "You should write a novel about our family. It would be a tragedy. It would be about a young man denied a brilliant career by his father." He meant to describe my dad but he was describing himself also. "A life cut short," he said, "too soon." So, it's sort of about them and me.
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ON IDENTITY AND WRITING ZILKA: Aside from the obvious question of how we self-‐identify (many of us do battle in that arena) I do wonder if you feel any external pressure from the publishing industry to identify being gay versus male versus Korean American? CHEE: I'll answer the industry question first: No. Or at least, not from book publishers now. Magazines are more skittish. There was a time when Edinburgh was being rejected (24 times total) because marketing didn't know what to do with it-‐-‐-‐“Is it a gay book?” they'd ask. “Or is it an Asian American book?” And I kept thinking, it's a BOOK. And this was frustrating. Of course now it is taught in classes as disparate as Gender Studies, APA Lit, American Lit, and Creative Writing. A writer friend told me she took a class at the New School where it was taught in an Erotica class. So, there you have it. That turned out to be the marketing angle. Picador, when they acquired it, they were a dream-‐-‐-‐they just sold it as general lit and put it in the front of the store. I remember an established lesbian writer asking me, “How did you get them to do that?” And I was like, Uh...I ...didn't do anything. In Baltimore, I remember, I stood for a while looking at this outsider art piece that was an anagram of AMERICA: I AM RACE. That was the whole piece and I just stared at it. It felt like the approximate puzzle. I'm honestly so sick of the politicking. And I think we're all ready to move in a more intelligent way past the balkanization of our literatures and our lives that these ideas have created while also retaining a respectful attitude towards our cultures. I feel like what we've done is internalize the wedge politics that emerged from the Nixon era. Is that what we wanted to do? Live out Nixon's idea of a divided country? ON CRAFT ZILKA: What do you think is your greatest writing strength? And weakness as a writer? CHEE: Hunh. My greatest strength, to my mind, is in my characters. People talk about my language a great deal, but I'm most proud of my
characters. I used to be shocked when people said of Edinburgh they didn't want it to end, but what they were saying, I eventually figured out, was that they loved the people inside it. My weakness is probably the speed at which I write. Or at least, the speed at which I become certain. I'm working on that. ZILKA: Regarding your characters: I do wonder what happened to Aphias. I really did love him as a character. And speaking of novels as "stories that do not end"-‐-‐do you, in your mind, wonder or think about the future of your characters beyond the page and beyond the novel? Or do they disappear with the novel's end from your conscious? CHEE: Well, thanks. I appreciate that. I remember going to drinks with my first editor at the indie hardcover house where Edinburgh was published and a paperback editor who was interested in the book. She asked me how I knew the book was finished, and I said, "When the characters stopped talking to me." I think about them, sure, in moments. But I'm not much for the stories without end idea. ZILKA: You wrote Edinburgh not only in first person, but also in PRESENT TENSE. I was like, "Wow"-‐-‐because present tense (like second person) is one of the toughest things to pull off in a long piece, like a novel. Were you conscious of this while writing? How did you come to the decision to write Edinburgh in present tense, and then what were key elements to making it work? CHEE: I was conscious of it. I didn't realize there was something like a rule. It was more like, I turned in a draft to my agent of the time that had 90 pages in past tense and 35 in the present, and she said, “It really picks up after page 90.” So I went and looked, and laughed when I realized what she was talking about. It was intuitive, which typically means, to me at least, "The answer to this was woven from hundreds of abstruse insights hidden from me and from direct observation by outsiders, but nonetheless correct."
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Later, it made sense, or I could explain it-‐-‐-‐people retell stories of traumatic events in the first person, typically. I think the first key element to making it work was to imagine the characters speaking almost like from after their deaths, as if you were Odysseus and you'd poured out blood for the ghosts. I had to imagine someone telling me something they'd never tell anyone, ever, in their lives. But also, another, for the reader, is that while it is in the present tense, the story is not "in the present", which is to say, the reader is always made aware of the future in small ways, and that the narrator is someone speaking from the other side of "how it all turned out". Also known as the I-‐Narrator/I-‐Character divide. The I-‐Character is the figure standing in for the narrator who doesn't know how it all turns out, and the narrator knows-‐-‐-‐that's how they're the narrator. Understanding your narration this way is the key to using and sustaining the present tense, or any first-‐person narrative, for that matter. ZILKA: You write short stories, nonfiction, poetry, and novels. How do you find yourself transitioning between formats? Do you write them in parallel, or do you find you can only write one project at a time? CHEE: Novels have a tendency to eat whatever's in the room. But I write as I feel it, which is the only honest thing to do. We have allowed fiction, poetry and nonfiction to become ethnicities in this country. I remember at Iowa, fellow students telling me I "looked like a poet,” in response to me telling them I was there for fiction. I don't know why we've done this or why we enforce it. I make my fiction students write pantoums out of their drafts, for example. It helps them learn how to introduce a theme and then make it return, remade. ON INSPIRATION AND SETTING ZILKA: You've lived in New York and now Massachusetts but seem to gain inspiration from Maine and Europe (your upcoming book is set in France, Edinburgh is well, titled Edinburgh and set in Maine). Why do you think that is? From where is it that you gain inspiration?
CHEE: I wouldn't neglect Korea in all of this. The first novel is set in Maine, but the sensibility was inspired in large part by the distinctions between what I was learning about Korean culture and what my Korean family told me about Korean culture. I wrote to the gap. As for the significance of Edinburgh, well, the novel uses the city as a metaphor. Not as a setting. And it turns out that while I'm very moved by the Maine landscape, by the haunted quality of it, growing up, Edinburgh was this mythic place to me. My father, when he emigrated here from Korea, first lived in Edinburg, TX (spelled without the H). His father, my paternal grandfather, was always talking about how he wanted me to go study English literature there, because the lit program there is one of the world's finest. My mother also thought that was a great idea: she was Scottish, and loved the idea of me being there. For myself, spooky witch-‐child that I was, I had discovered there was a parapsychology program at the University of Edinburgh, and the idea of spending all of my time interviewing little old ladies who believed they knew the future sounded like a lot of fun. Going there for a while seemed like it would solve the way every choice I made would alienate this or that beloved parental authority figure and still allow me to be myself. So it's no wonder to me it became a metaphor, and the central metaphor for the first novel. I seem to be inspired by the thing no one wants to say. That thing is always calling to me. And as for the setting of the second novel, well, the characters told me that was where it was set. The place itself I went to only after starting the novel and writing what I could before going there. ZILKA: I am struck by your statement, "I seem to be inspired by the thing no one wants to say." Powerful. Is all your work driven by this source of inspiration? CHEE: It feels awkward to see that repeated back to me, though I know you are only admiring it. By which I mean, I don't want that to sound too much like I'm wearing a black turtle neck and smoking a cigarette, saying, "Fuck the Man". What I mean is, I'm the guy who says the thing no one else in the room will say.
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I call it "Mouth of Evil". When I do that in life. So, my work has that relationship to it, I'd say. I'm that guy, but that guy plus writing. ZILKA: Regarding your next book-‐-‐it is a historical novel, no? Is there an enormous temptation as a fiction writer to take scenes out of history, and mess with them just a little bit? CHEE: Well, that's the job, really. To muss up history's hair. But you have to know enough to make it sexy. All fictions have their own internal set of rules, the terms under which they exist. This is just where my novel ended up. But I did stump a Second Empire expert here at Amherst College with a question the other night at dinner, and he really thought about it. He loved the question. So I think he'll love the book. ON WRITING THE SECOND BOOK ZILKA: What were some of the differences writing your second novel? Junot Diaz has said that writing a novel can change your entire brain chemistry-‐-‐what do you think of that statement as it pertains to you, having written a novel and now starting a second? CHEE: Marilynne Robinson spoke here recently and talked about needing to write the first book out of her after finishing it, of writing the sound of it out of her. So with the first book I was constructing one voice that spoke sometimes in very odd fragments of sentences. It was someone who'd grown up with the syntax of Koreans who learn English. I loved that voice, but it wasn't the right voice for the second book (or the third one). And so that was familiar to me, crossing out that old voice from the new work. The differences are partly in what I now knew-‐-‐-‐that making more decisions earlier in the writing helps the writing. But also, along the way, I now know other things about how my mind works-‐-‐-‐that this is when I feel the novel is too horrible to be saved or seen, this is when I can no longer read other things or work on other things, this is when I can't
describe it or read from it, this is when I can. They're like metabolic phases or something. For a while I wrote the second and third ones together, they were like odd twins, fraternal twins, and they are very different creatures. And the differences seemed to help sharpen my sense of each of them and also make them very different from the first one. I do think that writing changes your brain, definitely. You're constantly making new connections. Even in just writing a sentence or just a phrase. But if I had to guess, I think he also means something else, which is that working on the work that fires your whole mind will turn you into yourself, it's like you're the crucible, the fire and the ore at the center altogether. ON READING ZILKA: What are you reading these days? CHEE: I'm reading Ed Park's Personal Days, Nami Mun's Miles From Nowhere, due out in the spring, and Chris Ware's Acme Novelty Library #18. I intensely love all three. FINAL WORDS OF ADVICE ZILKA: What advice do you have for Asian American writers? For emerging writers in general? CHEE: There's great rewards in participating in the sale of your identity. You get the parade before you win the pennant, as it were. But it feels a little empty. And then everyone in the room is there because of who you are and not what you wrote. You're performing a function, and it isn't as a writer, exactly. And when they applaud they applaud that. If the writing is good it's incidental. Any writer is annihilated by that.
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Or worse, you become a writer who writes just for white people, selling a kind of "Asian Drama". Complete with covers done up with chopsticks and dragons. It's time for a more intelligent response to ethnicity culturally-‐-‐-‐it's too complex for too many of us, as Obama's recent campaign showed-‐-‐-‐the lie of monoculturalism is intensely poisonous. And forming our own monocultural response is the worst idea I can think of. My advice then, for writers, Asian American or of any other kind, is to make writing as complex as you know your world to be. Just do that.
CONTRIBUTORS MICHAEL CAYLO-BARADI is a California writer who has been published in elimae, Tertulia Magazine, XCP: Streetnotes, Our Own Voice, Galatea Resurrects, the Los Angeles Daily News, Colorado Daily, and The Daily Californian, among others. He earned his Masters degree in Library and Information Science from UCLA and BA from UC Berkeley. Mr. Baradi presently resides in Southern California. PRIYANKA CHAMPANERI is an MFA candidate in Creative Fiction Writing at George Mason University. She is also a fiction reader for Phoebe: A Journal of Literature and Art. Her works have been published in George Mason Review and the George Mason Gazette. Ms. Champaneri is currently a graduate teaching assistant at George Mason University's English Department where she has been the recipient of such honors as the Department Faculty Award, Honors Medal, and the Dr. Karen Rosenblum Leadership Award. SHOME DASGUPTA holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University-‐Los Angeles, where he was a recipient of the Antioch Opportunity Grant. His fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in print and online journals, including Word Riot, Cafe Irreal, Verdad Magazine, DiddleDog, The MeadoW, Magma Poetry, Sylvan Echo, Shelf Life Magazine, and The Footnote. SHEBA KARIM is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop. Her young adult novel, Skunk Girl, about a Pakistani-‐American teenage girl growing up in a rural town in upstate New York, is forthcoming from Farrar Straus Giroux in April 2009. Ms. Karim holds a JD from New York University School of Law and a BA from the University of Pennsylvania, where she graduated magna cum laude. Ms. Karim was a summer associate at Gunderson Dettmer, and a staff attorney at the Asian Battered Women’s Project in Jamaica, New York. Her fiction has been published in EGO Magazine and DesiLit, among others. She is currently at work on a short story collection. JEE LEONG KOH is the author of Payday Loans (Poets Wear Prada). His new book of poems, Equal to the Earth, is forthcoming from the same
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press in April 2009. His poem “Brother” was selected by Natasha Trethewey for the Best New Poets 2007 anthology (University of Virginia). Other poems have appeared in the North American, in various British, Australian and Singaporean journals, including Crab Orchard Review, Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, and Mimesis. Born in Singapore, he now lives in New York City, and blogs at Song of a Reformed Headhunter, http://jeeleong.blogspot.com. RODRIGO V. DELA PEÑA, JR. has been a fellow for poetry in various national writers workshops in the Philippines. His works have appeared in Blue Print Review, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Poets' Picturebook, Gowanus, and other literary journals and anthologies. He graduated with a degree in Political Science from the University of the Philippines, Diliman, Quezon City, and currently works as a publicist. CORA CABAHUG PYLES holds an MFA in Creative Writing/Fiction from Antioch University, Los Angeles. Her works have appeared in Kaliedowhirl and Wordriot. Ms. Pyles currently works as a production assistant and resides in Huntington Beach, California. PETER SCHWARTZ has dedicated his life to perfecting the art of digital painting. His work's been published in numerous print and online journals including: Existere, Failbetter, Hobart, International Poetry Review, Red Wheelbarrow, Reed, and Willard & Maple. He serves as the Art Editor for Dogzplot. Doing interviews, collaborating with other artists, and pushing the borders of what can be done digitally, his mission is to broaden the ways the world sees digital art. Visit his online gallery at: www.sitrahahra.com. CHAITI SEN is a writer and teacher who has recently relocated to Austin, Texas from New York City. She received her MFA from Hunter College and has been published in the Asian Pacific American Journal, ColorLines Magazine, and India Currents. "Uma" was a Top 25 Finalist for the Glimmer Train Short Fiction Award. ALVIN SO graduated from Binghamton University with a B.A. in Economics in 2006. He appreciates many things in life, but life is not a spectator sport so whatever he finds interesting also becomes his interest. His hobbies include photography, Brazilian jiu-‐jitsu, boxing and snowboarding. Although he wouldn't call himself a voracious reader, he does like to read. His favorite authors at the moment are Malcolm 107
Gladwell and Ayn Rand. Currently he is unemployed and hoping to weather the economic storm. His photography featured in this issue is his first art publication. WAYNE SULLINS writer/photographer, is originally from Texas. His travels have taken him to Europe, Israel, India, Japan, and Vietnam. He published his first full-‐length book, Najimi, in July, 2006. Currently, he’s working on two books on Hanoi – a book of stories and a book of photographs. SABRINA TOM received a Master's Degree in Creative Writing from the University of California at Davis, where she was awarded the Englund Fellowship. Her fiction and non-‐fiction have been published in Storyglossia, Slow Trains, and the Utne Reader, among others. Born in Taiwan and raised in Santa Monica, she currently lives in London, where she is at work on a novel. JULIE WAN earned her MFA in non-‐fiction writing from the University of Pittsburgh and is at work on a book, In Translation: A Memoir of Language and Faith, a synthesis of narratives about her family in Vietnam and China and her own experiences growing up bilingual in Canada. Her works have been published in Arts & Letters, The Washington Post, and Radiant, among others. "Deconstructing Babel" won the Creative Non-‐Fiction Award at the University of Arizona, where she graduated summa cum laude and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. She has taught English at Catholic University, the University of Maryland, University of Pittsburgh and currently serves as Assistant Editor at Weatherwise magazine.
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The editorial board reviews submissions on a rolling basis. Thus, we accept submissions by electronic mail year-‐round. Please do not send previously published work. We accept simultaneous submissions, but ask that you notify the respective editor immediately when your submission has been accepted elsewhere. For more information, please visit http://www.kartikareview.com/submit.html.
FICTION Attn: Christine Lee Zilka | email@example.com Short stories, experimental or interpretive works of fiction, flash fiction and micro-‐fiction pieces fall under our category of fiction. We give due consideration to all submissions, but we strongly prefer works under 8,000 words.
POETRY Attn: Abby Reid | firstname.lastname@example.org Narrative, prose, or lyrical poetry, free verse, eastern or western poetic forms, or works meant as spoken word are all welcome as poetry. Please do not send more than 5 pieces at a time.
NON-FICTION Attn: Jason Wong | email@example.com For creative non-‐fiction, we are particularly interested in short memoirs and personal pieces on how identification as an Asian American has shaped the writer’s unique life experiences. Alternative formats and subject matter are nonetheless welcome. We give due consideration to all submissions, but we strongly prefer works under 8,000 words.
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