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Š 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.

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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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ISSUE 4 | WINTER 2008

TABLE OF CONTENTS Jason  Wong  

 

Editorial  

6  

 

 

2008  Pushcart  Prize  Nominees  

8  

 

 

 

 

Jimmy  Chen  

Art  

 

9  

Jee  Leong  Koh  

Poetry  

Childhood  Punishments  

Sheba  Karim  

Fiction  

Qiyamat  

Rodrigo  Dela  Peña  

Poetry  

City  (After  Arturo  Luz)  

31  

Julie  Wan  

Essay  

Deconstructing  Babel  

32  

Peter  Schwartz  

Art  

 

41  

Shome  Dasgupta  

Fiction  

Anklet  

Cora  Cabahug  Pyles  

Fiction  

Thanks  Lou  Reed  

49  

Michael  Caylo-­‐Baradi  

Poetry  

Cruising  on  Revisitation  

58  

Wayne  Sullins  

Fiction  

As  Real  As  It  Gets  

Alvin  So  

Art  

 

63  

Sabrina  Tom  

Essay  

Life,  Stupefying  

64  

Priyanka  Champaneri  

Essay  

At  The  Table  

66  

Chaiti  Sen  

Fiction  

Uma  

68  

Randa  Jarrar  

Interview  

 

89  

Alexander  Chee  

Interview  

 

95  

 

 

 

 

Contributors  

 

 

106  

 

 

 

 

5

12   13  

42  

60  


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.      

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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  

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RECYCLING    

Acrylics  on  Paper  

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ISSUE 4 | WINTER 2008

          EPISODE  SEVENTEEN    

Acrylics  on  Paper      

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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  

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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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ISSUE 4 | WINTER 2008

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.  

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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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ISSUE 4 | WINTER 2008

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.    

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“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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ISSUE 4 | WINTER 2008

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?"  

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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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ISSUE 4 | WINTER 2008

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.  

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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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ISSUE 4 | WINTER 2008

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  

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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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ISSUE 4 | WINTER 2008

"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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ISSUE 4 | WINTER 2008

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?    

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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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ISSUE 4 | WINTER 2008

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  

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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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ISSUE 4 | WINTER 2008

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.    

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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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ISSUE 4 | WINTER 2008

Peter  Schwartz      

DEVIL  DOG    

 

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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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ISSUE 4 | WINTER 2008

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.  

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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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ISSUE 4 | WINTER 2008

“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,  

45


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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ISSUE 4 | WINTER 2008

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  

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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.        

 

48


ISSUE 4 | WINTER 2008

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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ISSUE 4 | WINTER 2008

“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.  

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“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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ISSUE 4 | WINTER 2008

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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ISSUE 4 | WINTER 2008

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  

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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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ISSUE 4 | WINTER 2008

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.    

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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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ISSUE 4 | WINTER 2008

refusal,  becoming  form,  resembling     power,  one  that  builds  cities,     hungry,  imperial  as  child’s  needs    

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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  

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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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Alvin  So      

 

 

 

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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.      

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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.      

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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.    

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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.”    

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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.    

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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.    

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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.”    

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“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.    

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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.    

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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  

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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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ISSUE 4 | WINTER 2008

“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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ISSUE 4 | WINTER 2008

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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ISSUE 4 | WINTER 2008

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.  

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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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ISSUE 4 | WINTER 2008

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?  

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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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ISSUE 4 | WINTER 2008

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  

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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  

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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?  

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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  

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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.    

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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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SUBMISSION GUIDELINES

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  |  fiction@kartikareview.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  |  poetry@kartikareview.com   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  |  essays@kartikareview.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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