Literary Citizenship: How to Handle Rejection and Nurture Emerging Voices

Around Christmas, LitHub put up their round-up of The Most-Rejected Books of All Time (Of Those That Were Eventually Published), and the literary Internet chimed in—I chimed in, too, sharing that my forthcoming novel had been rejected 98 times.

The reality of rejection is not a new topic for lit mags or bookish media, and what often follows these articles is the chorus of authors who have had some kind of publishing success, or, in my case (and in the cases of countless others like me), at least enough success to feel comfortable sharing about rejection and to be able to conceptualize it as a pathway to print.

However, without a book or two, or at least a string of magazine appearances, those rejection numbers, whether it’s nine or 19 or 98, feel less like a badge of honor. I certainly wouldn’t have shared my number if my manuscript were not under contract. In fact, I had a higher number for my first novel, and I never talked about it frankly until the book was out. I also didn’t talk about how one agent wrote to me and said they could maybe sell it if I made the main character male instead of female. And I didn’t discuss the angry rejections I got—because my protagonist was so “unlikable”—I just kept trying to place it. As Roxane Gay has written, on Twitter and elsewhere, it’s important to not let rejection be validation.

While it’s true that writers absolutely must believe in their own work, must try to cultivate a thick skin, must be polite to editors (please, please be polite to editors), rejection and everything that comes with it—doubt, disappointment, demoralization—is real, and if we care about cultivating new voices, we must ask how we, as a community, can do better than patting ourselves on the back for our own moxie.

For all of the happy endings born of multiple rejections, I know there are writers out there with very good, even breakthrough stories and manuscripts who have given up at 20, or 50, or 97, just as there are writers who scraped together $30 dollars for a contest, and were not selected and who do not have the funds to apply again.

Recently, a writer emailed me and said she had been rejected a handful of times for her YA novel. I told her, nicely, I thought, that until she got to 100, she should get over it. She didn’t write me back.

I’ve said this so many times, to so many aspiring writers, this “100 rejections” thing. I’ve said it on panels. I’ve said it in workshops. I’ve said it in topical conversations and casual ones. I said it at a pizza place during a birthday party for a cousin when I was talking about having a day job.

I keep thinking about this. Emerging writers already know how hard it is. Shouldn’t we, instead of continuing the “tough it out” conversation, be more transparent about our own experiences and challenges?

(I’m not naïve about my particular contribution to this conversation—but four years ago, which is not so long, before my first book, I was just another writer in the slush. I never considered that I’d stop writing, but I did start to believe I would never have my own name on my own spine.)

Perhaps it’s better to make a different point, like about how unpredictable writing can be. For example, my most-read work to date is not the stories I worked on for over a decade, it’s not the novel I spent eight years on, it’s a guest post I dashed off about how many books don’t sell.

Or, how once, I had a story accepted in a print publication because I guess they liked it well enough but mostly they needed a very specific word count for their layout. I know this because the editor told me. I’m not really sure why he told me. I’m not sure what I was supposed to do with this information. It’s a decent magazine, and I submitted because I had read it, so now it’s there on my publication list with everything else.

A few weeks ago on the Brevity blog, Allison K. Williams wrote about literary citizenship and the value we get from helping others alongside imploring writers to do their homework. Learn the business she says, because it is a business.

There’s certainly no obligation to share trusted contacts or make introductions to friendlies, and we don’t have to offer guidance towards specific publication outlets: it’s old, old advice, but writers should get a sense of who their targets are via their reading habits.

Still, in terms of the woman who wrote to me, I could have encouraged instead of being blasé. I could have asked her how she was targeting her submissions, as careful targeting will cut down on heartbreak. I could have asked her any number of questions that were supportive rather than dismissive. I could have sent her a link to a success story, instead of trotting out the 100 rejections narrative again.

If nothing else, I certainly could have been much more transparent about how it has felt, collecting so many rejections. I will always believe that it’s foolish to give up at only three or four, but it takes some real time to get to 100 or beyond. It can take literal years. I could have shared how much it is a drain trying to stay positive for myself even if I am not always positive externally. I could have shared how I keep all the rejections in an alphabetized card file so I can look at them and remind myself that I am actually doing tangible work, not just moving pixels around on a screen.

I could have shared about how I talk sometimes to writer friends about re-imaging rejection as “reminder”—how when a publication or press or an agent declines, it’s just a nudge to submit again, elsewhere.

It’s a nice idea, in theory. In practice, it’s a lot of trips to the post office or a lot of time on Submittable. It’s also, as far as I can tell, the only way to get there.

If I had read the LitHub article before I had a book, I would have thought, Well, that’s nice for them to be finally published, what about the rest of us. We all know it’s hard to make a living as a writer, yet when I received the largest sum I’d ever been paid for a single essay or story, I didn’t share about this, because it was a kill fee. That’s something other writers should know. Again, it’s an unpredictable business. Any of us who have been doing it for a while have pages of anecdotes like this, though as authors in the contemporary landscape, we’re told to develop our platform, to promote ourselves, to broadcast our wins, not announce our letdowns.

Perhaps the most transparent thing to say to emerging writers is to be open. Listen to the overworked editors who have taken time to offer a sentence or two of feedback—yours is one of hundreds if not thousands of submissions; it’s a big deal to get even nominal comments. And listen if you keep getting the same kind of observations; I definitely did not rewrite my first novel so that the protagonist was male instead of female, but I did rework it, several times, and while the main character isn’t more “likeable,” it’s absolutely a better book for this effort.

You don’t have to get numb to rejection, and you don’t have to accept that it’s always going to be the default response. You should certainly never feel ashamed by it.

If you believe in your work and you push yourself to make it better, if you’ve researched your markets, if you are an active reader, if you are paying attention to what editors ask for, your work will find a home. Maybe you’ll have to endure the 100 rejections scenario, but I really hope not.

When you do get there, shout your wins, but don’t forget to be transparent—for instance, this essay has been through 11 drafts, and I’m still not sure it’s quite right—and loud enough in sharing your failures so that emerging voices can hear you.

Image Credit: Flickr/Judith E. Bell.

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On Imitation

The first time I stole, I was told it was wrong. It was borrowed from a Garfield cartoon—one character says, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” and then in the next panel, a dictionary falls on his head. I thought it was funny; I included it in one of my stories. I was seven. When I showed the story to my parents, my dad asked if I’d come up with that joke on my own, and I admitted that I hadn’t. He explained to me that it wasn’t right to use someone’s words without giving credit to that person or without changing them enough so that they were my own; that was called plagiarism. It didn’t make sense to me. This cartoon had been drawn and printed and delivered to my parents’ doorstep for me to unfold and read while I ate my Cheerios. I could cut it out and stick it to the refrigerator with magnets, or roll out a ball of Silly Putty and pull Garfield right off of the page and into my hand. It didn’t make sense that enjoying or admiring or loving something wasn’t enough to make that something mine.

covercovercoverAs a longtime lover of words, I was a master mimic. After hearing Donna Lewis’s “I Love You Always Forever” on the radio, I spent weeks trying to find and compose the tune on my Yamaha keyboard. I wrote my own song parodies à la “Weird Al” Yankovic. It only made sense that when I read books that I loved, I wanted to try and recreate them. Barbara Park’s Junie B. Jones inspired my own series about a precocious six-year-old named Leslie Ann Mayfield. Cecily von Ziegesar’s Gossip Girl led to the creation of The Girls of Greenwich Academy. They were imitations; they were different only in the sense that I couldn’t have the original and wanted to have control over as close an approximation as I could. I loved these stories like I loved the barrage of letters that Elizabeth Clarry receives from various societies and clubs—each pointing out her faults and shortcomings—in Jaclyn Moriarty’s Feeling Sorry for Celia (the letters being reflections of Elizabeth’s own subconscious thoughts and not real letters, of course), or like I loved a particular passage from Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl that I wrote out in notebooks and repeated so many times I had it memorized and still can recite it today: “She was elusive. She was today. She was tomorrow…In our minds we tried to pin her to a cork board like a butterfly, but the pin merely went through and away she flew.” I wrote a story composed entirely of letters to myself from fictionalized clubs. I read Stargirl so many times the pages fell out of the binding. But no matter how many times I read these books, no matter how many times I tried to make them my own, they remained too elusive to pin down. My inexperience impeded me. My inability to create something of equal value frustrated me. To create something of my own worthy of that kind of love felt impossible.

coverAfter I met Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, I realized all of my past preoccupations—even with Blair Waldorf and Serena van der Woodsen—had merely been crushes. With Prep, I felt vulnerable and unnervingly understood—I felt loved. Lee Fiora was a misanthrope, a cypher—difficult to like and everything I feared myself to be. Over the course of the four years in which the novel takes place, Lee silently watches her peers, trying at once to imitate them and appear unassuming enough to not be seen. She fails, of course; she fails and exposes herself as a fraud in the most public and humiliating way. I typed out hundreds of pages of the novel, and the sensation of generating Sittenfeld’s words by my own hand on my own screen felt like ecstasy. I dreamed of writing Prep myself. I dreamed of a machine that would allow me to go back in time and steal the manuscript before it was ever published and claim it as my own. But because I couldn’t pluck Prep from Curtis Sittenfeld’s hands like I once pulled cartoon Garfield off a page with putty, I decided to make it my mission: I would write a book that would make someone ache with recognition, a book that someone could love—even if that someone was only me.

covercovercovercoverI couldn’t know at the time of my preoccupation that Junie B.’s speech patterns and penchant for nicknames is reminiscent of short story writer Damon Runyon. I never knew until later that von Ziegesar modeled Gossip Girl on The Age of Innocence. Even having heard Prep compared to everything from A Separate Peace to The Bell Jar to The Catcher in the Rye, Lee Fiora’s story never felt like anything but her own. It is inevitable to bear a resemblance to classic literature, it seemed to me; everyone is made to read the same books the summer before ninth grade and write the same reports. The difference was that classic literature felt wholly impersonal, unrelatable, obsolete. It was okay to rewrite those stories because—to me—they’d ceased to entertain, to matter.

As I began to study writing in earnest in college and later graduate school, I looked not to the past but to contemporaries for inspiration and guidance. I had a love affair with Lorrie Moore my junior year of college; I loved repetition, lists, and long, looping, loquacious sentences that Moore could make funny in their inanity. I met Edward P. Jones and experimented with time, turning to him for guidance so I could shift forward and back without warning and without losing a reader. I wrote whole stories trying to imitate the narrative style of Thomas Bernhard and Donald Barthelme. My senior year of college, Zadie Smith—actual Zadie Smith, that is—came to my advanced fiction workshop the day my story was up for critique, and she noted that I did the Lorrie Moore-esque technique of listing three things, each item more extreme or nonsensical than the last. “The ‘Three Things’ things—that’s a Lorrie thing. It’s been done,” she said. The only part of my story Zadie Smith took special notice of was when the character said she didn’t know how to cook chicken properly so that it wasn’t still pink inside. “That’s honest,” she said. At the time, the only thing that stuck with me after class was pleasure at being told that I wrote like Lorrie Moore.

covercovercovercovercovercoverI remember reading Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go and, shortly after, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, and feeling almost betrayed—Roy’s influence on Selasi was so evident to me that I felt I’d uncovered something devious or even criminal. But everything is borrowed from something, I’ve learned; every story is influenced by those told before it, every voice a reflection of an earlier one. By borrowing stories, trying on different styles, imitating different techniques, I somehow learned to develop my own voice—a cocktail of everything I’d ever read and admired and loved, but diffused through me, made into my own. When I first started showing people my own novel, I heard comparisons to Alissa Nutting’s Tampa and Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, and—to my great delight—Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep. But readers also drew comparisons to stories I hadn’t even meant to echo: Lolita and Old School, so-called classics that I’d once dismissed as irrelevant, but that are still called up from the past today to be borrowed and reformed, made new again. Layers and layers of stories and voices in conversation with one another, building on one another; I love that idea, that every story I’ve ever loved is inextricable from my own. That I’ve finally, in a way, made them mine.

I worry that the novel I’ve written isn’t anything new. I worry that my story has already been told—been told dozens of times, in fact—and that I don’t contribute anything new to the story’s legacy except another tired imitation. But I also like to think that what I have contributed is my own truth, a personal intimacy, like the redemptive bit about the uncooked chicken. Writing the novel, I channeled Lorrie and Bernhard and Zadie all at once, exploring my characters and their story through several different lenses—empathic, contemptuous, tongue-in-cheek—but what never changed was my desire to make it all feel as achingly, cringingly honest as possible. Years later, an editor would read my novel and tell me that she’d always felt alone in her experience of depression until she read my character’s experience and, for the first time since I’d read Prep at age 14, I felt seen and understood.

I have created something, something that may even be worthy of love, but still I covet others. That won’t ever stop. I read to learn and to grow, and even if the things I read make me blind with envy—make me want to rip the pages from the bindings and hide them from the world and claim the words as my own—it only makes me want to improve. Each book I love is a new voice to carry with me, a new style to try on. A new something that I can stretch and hem and saturate with my scent until it feels like me. Like something honest.

Image Credit: Flickr/IsabelleTheDreamer.

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Motherhood as Muse

1.
We were living in Philadelphia with our twin 13-month-old daughters when one night I returned from the store to find my husband holding E, her face blue. Her arms and legs made a slow but steady jerk jerk jerk, only her eyes were closed and when we lifted her lids the pupils darted back and forth. I called 911 while my husband bent over, put his mouth over my daughter’s, and breathed.

But just like a story that I cannot forget, the moment that haunts me is E’s first seizure. I remember the sound of the approaching ambulance screaming down the street, the sight of my husband walking down the hall ramrod straight with our unconscious daughter in his arms.

I ran out in the hall, knocked on our neighbor’s door. Then another. Our other daughter was asleep in her crib.  I waited for someone to answer their door, to ask, How can we help?

No one did.

Back in the apartment I walked from room to room balling my hands. There was a bank of walls along the east side of the apartment and I remember straining to see the ambulance as it traveled farther away with E inside. When it moved past Cherry Street, the wail faded, and I placed my hands on the window and cried.

After begging a dog sitter to stay with our other daughter, I rushed to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. It was a Thursday night and the ER was quiet, the floors waxed a glossy sheen. They told me the room E was in and I moved quickly, the rooms clearly marked with numbers. There were seven or eight people surrounding a bed when I walked in. They were not talking. My husband stood at the side and in the middle of a hospital bed on a white starched sheet stretched our daughter. A clear ribbed tube extended from her mouth to a blue bag. Behind her a man in scrubs squeezed the bag every time she needed to take a breath. There were IVs in both arms, another thinner tube fixed beneath her nose, another tube that extended from her mouth hung on the wall behind her. It was magenta colored and later someone joked that when they pumped her stomach they tried to guess what it was she had eaten for dinner. Beets, I would tell them. They’d cut off her undershirt and it lay bunched around her like skin she’d shed.

It’s Mommy, Sweetpea, I said. Mommy’s here. Her blanket looked dingy under the harsh lights. Dirty. It covered the lower half of her body and nodes dotted her chest. What’s going on? I asked no one in particular. What happened? What is that thing in her mouth?

Everyone in the room was so quiet, deliberate, the space no larger than our galley kitchen. Still. Every movement hushed. That’s when my husband put his arm around me and led me out into the hall, a cold place neither here nor there, floors so shiny I could nearly see my reflection in them. I don’t understand, I said.

2.
My daughter’s life—as well as my writing career—could have ended here. “You know we almost lost her,” my husband later said. Status epilepticus, the life-threatening seizure that E initially experienced, carries with it a high rate of mortality and neurologic deficits. If she hadn’t survived that life-threatening seizure, or if it had left her with neurological scars, my responsibilities as her mother might be vastly more complex. Still, her seizures have overshadowed every aspect of my early years as a parent and writer. Writing requires time and focus and as a parent to a child with health issues, I’m often challenged by conflicting needs.  Yet dealing with these concerns has also expanded my worldview and transformed the way I approach my work. Writing—working toward a goal and identifying myself outside of my responsibilities as a parent—has become more important than ever.

3.
My daughter has seized in the doctor’s office when they tried to measure her height and during a check-up when a doctor looked inside her ears with an otoscope. She has seized in the hospital, while at the neighborhood park next door, in our kitchen, her bedroom, in the bathroom, on the living room floor in the summer and in the winter while she was fighting a cold. One Mother’s Day, years ago, she went limp in my arms when I lifted her from her high chair.

She’s nine years old now and because her seizures are caused by breath-holding spells the doctors are hesitant to prescribe daily medication. I do however carry with me at all times a syringe pre-filled with medicine that can halt a seizure by relaxing her body. The major side effect of the Diastat is that it also suppresses respiration, making it difficult for E to breathe.

Every application of Diastat has resulted in a trip to the ER.

We have visited the ER many times.

4.
Before my daughters arrived I squandered time. I read books from start to finish whether I felt drawn into the world of the story or not. I worked on short stories that were okay but could easily be put aside to check email or run an errand. I lacked dedication.

Parenthood changed that. So did the seizures.

As a preschooler, when I said goodbye to E she would cry and follow me to the door. No amount of back patting or hugging could calm her. As the red of her face deepened, and we crept closer to another breath-holding spell, the teacher would distract her and I would rush to my car. Once at the library, seated in a carrel, I would keep looking at my phone. Had E seized? Were they trying to reach me at that moment?

Morning was the only time free of such anxieties. I began to set my alarm hours before the rest of my family. I discovered that my ideas are clearest when I work before my day with my daughters (or anyone else) has begun. In the quiet dark of morning I was more focused and wrote only what appealed to me; every minute was precious. Seizures were always a possibility and life remained fragile. Though it had been years since I had published my first book, a collection of short stories, I vowed to keep writing.

The decisions I made at the start of each day were enough to urge me forward.

5.
coverBy taking note of what appeals to my imagination, I’ve learned to work on stories while waiting in line at the grocery store and snapping Legos together to make a ship. I can puzzle through a problem with my current project while folding socks and invoicing a freelance client. And when I get those ideas down, I let go of all expectations. In Bird by Bird Anne Lamott says all writers write “Shitty First Drafts” and has a chapter in her book titled as such.  She goes on to say, “I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident.”

covercoverThroughout the writing of my novel I doubted my project and myself —some days more than others. Being a parent and an artist means embracing uncertainty and its sibling—fear. Elizabeth Gilbert’s thoughts in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear helped me see fear as something that can actually illuminate a writing project. Gilbert envisions fear and creativity as conjoined twins and makes space for the two to coexist. She even has a welcome speech prepared for any time she embarks on a new project:

Dearest Fear: Creativity and I are about to go on a road trip together. I understand you’ll be joining us, because you always do… There’s plenty of room in this vehicle for all of us, so make yourself at home, but understand this: Creativity and I are the only ones who will be making decisions along the way.

I’ve taken a cue from Gilbert and turned it up a notch—on days when I am most hampered by life’s concerns, I write a list of all my fears and on the opposing side try and refute them. Usually this activity shifts my headspace and allows me to re-center and return to the work at hand.

6.
Just as I cannot know the outcome of the novel I am currently drafting, my daughter’s health also remains uncertain. Her seizures have grown less frequent and when they do happen, they are shorter in duration. Still, I wonder what her future holds. Someday she will drive alone on the highway. Someday she will lean in to kiss a significant other, breath momentarily halted. And someday she will leave us to attempt her own dreams.

Parenting and writing are chock-full of doubts and frustrations, stress and delight, but these challenges can also fuel a writer’s work by reminding us that writing is a choice like any other, and that uncertainty remains part of the process. I could have put my own dream aside and stopped writing on countless occasions—when a printed rejection arrived with one word underlined: NO or when I caught our sitter on FaceTime with a friend while my toddlers were alone in another room. But every time I sit down I face these fears head-on and write through them.

My daughters have complicated my life in useful and important ways. And on the good days, when I think about them as adults, I hope that through my example my daughters are learning that their needs and goals matter and are worth pursuing.

It’s a conviction I can’t imagine any of us living without.

Image Credit: Public Domain Pictures.

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How to Keep Your New Year’s Resolution to Read More

It’s the first week of February and I’ve already failed in my resolution to read more books. Between the ever-accelerating news cycle, snow days, weekend road trips, and the three-month-old baby who is smile-drooling by my side as I write this, I’ve started six books and finished exactly…one.[1] I’m probably the last person who should be giving advice on the subject of How to Read More. But, I’m trying to do better, so I’ve compiled this list of tips to help myself—and maybe you, too.

1. Schedule Your Reading Time
For me, this has always been the most effective way to find time to read. Last year, I read for an hour in the morning right after I dropped my son at school. But now I live with a baby, so I’m trying to work with her naps. The point is to make a plan in advance: don’t wait for reading time to magically appear, because it never will. Look at your day and see where you can fit it in, and then stick to the plan, as if your book is a person who you’ve agreed to meet—don’t be late, and don’t flake!

2.Turn off Social Media
coverYou know you’re on social media too much. Cutting back on it is a pretty obvious way to find more reading time, but that’s easier said than done, especially since most of these sites are designed to be addictive. So here’s one simple thing you can do: put your phone in another room when you’re reading. I got this tip from the podcast Hidden Brain, during an interview with Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work. Newport emphasized that it is important to put your phone in another room because even if it’s turned off, as long as it’s nearby your mind will be distracted by its presence.

3. Don’t Overschedule Your Weekends
coverWeekends often get filled up with activities that aren’t reading-friendly or even very leisurely, e.g. household chores, social events, family obligations, and least fun of all, all the work you didn’t finish during the week. I didn’t even realize this was happening to me until I read Katrina Onstad’s The Weekend Effect, which argues that our culture is slowly turning its weekends over to scheduled activities and paid work. Take a look at your weekend and see if this isn’t happening to you. Then start declining invitations and put off doing the laundry. You deserve a lazy Sunday afternoon.

4. Get Up Earlier
Okay, this has never worked for me, at any stage of my life, but I hear it works well for other people. Set your alarm for a half hour earlier and keep a book on your bedside table. No need to get dressed, just roll over and read.

5. Listen to Books
coverAudiobooks generally put me to sleep, especially in the car. But my husband loves them and has found they help him to bridge reading sessions; he’ll read at home and then listen on his commute. Sometimes he even speeds up the narrator to 1.25 reading speed, or even 1.5. (I listened to a little bit of The Power Broker at 1.5 speed and it actually felt kind of aesthetically appropriate, given the overwhelming amount of detail in that book.) My son also enjoys audiobooks and this has been great for me, because he’ll play quietly in his room for a good hour if there is a story going—which gives me an hour to read quietly in my room.

6. Set a Goal, but Not a Numerical One
It’s tempting to set a numerical goal when it comes to reading more. You want to be able to look back on the year and say: “I read 50 books!” But when it comes to reading, I’m not convinced that numerical goals are actually very motivating. For me, it’s more satisfying to tackle a difficult book or series of books. It’s something I can remember and look back on fondly; sometimes focusing on a particular author or subject can even give special meaning to a period of your life.

7. Read on Your Smartphone
coverYou know how I told you to put your phone in another room while you read? If you found that advice annoying, you might try reading on your phone. A friend of mine reads all her books on her smart phone, a habit she developed because she’s the mother of two small children and a lot of her reading takes place in darkened rooms near sleeping kids. Her phone is like a book with a nightlight. I’ve tried reading my phone and it doesn’t work for me—though I was almost convinced by this beautiful essay by Sarah Boxer about reading In Search of Lost Time on her android phone, which she describes as “a tiny glass-bottomed boat moving slowly over a vast and glowing ocean of words in the night.”

8. Read Several Books at Once
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve enjoyed reading several books at once. If I got bored with one, I’d switch to another, and then back again. I thought this was how everyone consumed books until a teacher mentioned offhand that most people read one book at a time. I have no idea if this is true, but among dedicated readers, I suspect that habits are more varied. If you read a lot of books but you’ve never read more than one at once, try reading multiple books.

9. Don’t Force Yourself to Finish Good Books
Sometimes a book is brilliant, but it’s just not the right time for you read it. You can be sitting there, reading a book, thinking to yourself, this book is so good, and yet, you have no appetite for it. What can this mean? Are you stupid? A philistine? Naïve? Unwise? Who knows! Let yourself off the hook and read what you’re hungry for.

10. Force Yourself to Read Good Books
After 15 minutes, you might feel like you’re not “into” a book. Give it a half hour, especially if it’s a classic or comes highly recommended by a trusted source. Sometimes it just takes a while to work up the necessary concentration and your initial impression of boredom was just your brain sloughing off the anxieties of the day.

11. Don’t Substitute Writing for Reading
If you’re a writer at any stage of your career, it’s important to read at least as much as you write. You’ve probably heard this advice before, because every time you attend an author panel and someone asks for advice to aspiring writers, the answer is always: “read more.” This is not just a self-serving directive. Reading may feel like a passive activity, but it will make you a better writer. It’s almost magical. If you don’t believe me, just try it for a week: Let’s say you have put aside an hour every morning to work on your novel before starting your day. Take three of those mornings and spend those hours reading a book instead. I promise you that the writing sessions on the remaining mornings will be more productive and satisfying.

12. Be Realistic
I have to ask: do you actually want to read more? Or are you simply nostalgic for a time in your life when you had more time to do everything, including reading? Like exercise, the benefits of reading are exaggerated and understated in equal measure. If you don’t feel like reading more this year, just pick out a few books to enjoy. In a few years, you might have time for more. The books will be waiting for you.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

[1] But the one book I did finish—Ali Smith’s Autumn—was so wonderfully intelligent and funny and playful that it may end up being the best book I read all year.

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Two Epic Love Stories for Black History Month, and Every Other Month Too

This year, after 40 years, I finally learned how Black History Month came to be. It emerged out of the efforts of a former slave named Richard Robert Wright Sr. He thought that February 1, the day Abraham Lincoln signed the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, should be commemorated across the nation; a year after he died, in 1948, President Harry S. Truman made it so. That set the stage for what would later become Black History Week, which would later extend to the full month. I mention this because books about about blackness tend to publish in February. Black stories, somehow, are elevated more this month. But they are resonant all year round.

I read Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God every year. This year, I found another book I will likely read again and again, Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage. Aside from the fact that both books were penned by black women authors from the South, they also unearth the realities that complicate black heterosexual relationships in ways that are unique and hard to describe with grace or insight. Both are epic love stories that are at once timely and classic. Like Black History Month, and perhaps black history, so much of the story of our people is framed by slavery and struggle. Love is the only respite or solution, and, of course, even that is fraught, weighted by shackles.

coverHurston and Jones offer us a little bit of humor and light, descriptions that give us back some air—sounds and beauty to remind us that not all darkness leads to despair. (And because there is such a dearth of diversity in publishing, I have to be clear that I’m not saying that I think Jones is the new Hurston. But it also happens that Valentine’s Day falls in the midst of Black History Month, so there is some synchronicity here that gives me an excuse to write about their unique brilliance and the way it overlaps.)

First, An American Marriage. The old folks might say that Roy and Celestial are not exactly equally yoked, as Scripture puts it. Roy is a down-home country boy from Eloe, La. She is well-to-do from Atlanta. The way he puts it is that she’s a “shooting star” woman, the kind he’s always had a thing for. Celestial and Roy have a friend named Andre who is better friends with Celestial, which turns out to be as suspicious as it might sound. From the beginning, we get the sense that Roy has a chip on his shoulder about their marriage that was placed there by Celestial’s family.

An argument between the two of them sends Roy out of their hotel room and into a situation that ends with his wrongful imprisonment. He goes to prison based on the oldest trope connected to black manhood in the South and in America: the rape of a white woman.

I don’t want to give away the plot, the twists and the turns. But An American Marriage showcases Jones at the height of her narrative powers. The novel alternates between first-person narration from the perspective of Roy, Celestial, and Andre, except for when Roy and Celestial are engaged in an engrossing, detailed, and ultimately heartbreaking correspondence. We know from experience or because we read, or because we have heard our coupled and married friends bemoan the truth of this: a person, a love, a relationship can be a prison. The throbbing, broken heart of An American Marriage is the tension we feel between rooting for Celestial to be free and wondering if it is her obligation to experience the same wrongful incarceration as Roy. This is a letter from Celestial to Roy in prison, on what losing him has taught her about love:

Our house is simply empty, our home has been emptied. Love makes a place in your life, it makes a place for itself in your bed. Invisibly, it makes a place in your body, rerouting all your blood vessels, throbbing right alongside your heart. When it’s gone, nothing is whole again. Before I met you, I was not lonely, but now I’m so lonely I talk to the walls and sing to the ceiling.

I thought I was doing okay, that I wasn’t in danger at all of being gutted by this book, and then I read that line and my eyes swelled with tears at the accuracy of what lost love feels like—singing to a bare ceiling as you miss your beloved.

It is the kind of breathlessness I only ever experience over black love as depicted in Their Eyes Were Watching God, which begins with a line that I love more than any other in literature: “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish onboard.” As someone who is perpetually crushing on someone, somewhere, this is how I always feel.

But this sets the stage for Hurston’s epic, which is about how women call in our horizons for the sake of love—she does not decide or cast judgment on whether we should. Janie first marries a mean ol’ man who ends up as Mayor Starks. No one really likes him, but he’s respected. He makes her tie up her long luscious hair and beats her instead of loving on her. The difference between a woman like Janie and a woman like Celestial could be said to be the difference between that generation and ours. Janie sticks it out, she stays confined.

But thankfully, a cruel fate befalls him (one gets the sense that Hurston, as a writer, was just fed up with Joe Starks so she killed him off) and Janie ends up a wealthy widower in South Florida. After she burns the rags, a man half her age named Tea Cake courts her scandalously (They play checkers in her husband’s store and the dead husband’s body ain’t even cold yet! They go fishing at night!) and he makes her “soul crawl out from its hiding place.”

What the stories have in common is a bittersweet ending, which is probably the biggest challenge with black love, which is maybe what makes it particularly fraught. We can liberate ourselves from what we believe our love should look like, but for us, holding onto memory usually has baggage attached. Remembrance for us always has the death of something in it. And it requires us to work to cleanse memory of death and pain. Maybe that’s why it’s good we come back to this month every year after all, to find good things to remember, and to celebrate them.

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An Intimate Eclipse

1.
In August, my family traveled to Kansas to be in the path of totality for the eclipse. We decided to watch from a farm on the Platte River. My husband, Nick, and I would be traveling from Connecticut with my parents; our two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Thea; and seven-month-old son, Simon, so a reasonable flight and proximity to a major airport seemed logistically important. Of more inarticulable importance, though, is that Kansas City is at the center of our many Venn diagrams making up home. My parents met and married in Kansas City. My cousins grew up in central Kansas. Generations ago, and decades before the families had any reason to know one another, my mom’s people and my dad’s people criss-crossed one another in waves of migration from Appalachia across the plains.

Nick is a high school physics teacher with a Ph.D. in astronomy. At one time, Nick and his graduate school adviser searched the Southern Hemisphere for lensed quasars (mirages where gravity bends light in predictable ways that allow astrophysicists determine the age of the universe). Nine years into his teaching career, Nick’s adviser asked if he would help search for more. After almost two years of work, Nick was second author on a paper presenting their first lensed quasar discoveries, helping, in this small way, to tell the story of our universe in between days filled with life’s work—grading physics homework assignments and potty training our toddler. His institutional affiliation reads: “Staples High School, Westport, Connecticut.”

2.
My parents and I lived in Leawood, Kan., (just outside of Kansas City) until I was six. I spent long, sunny summer weeks with both sets of grandparents, riding on Pa’s tractor, snuggled on Baba’s lap listening to stories, and fishing in central Missouri with Grandfather and reading book after book with Grandmother. Then, in 2011, I started working on a novel set in a fictional southeast Kansas. I’d been to Atchison to visit the Amelia Earhart museum and had been thinking for a long time about the stately homes on a hill overlooking the Platte River and how the steep cliff drop, so unlike what I’d expected to find on a river in the plains, to the muddy water below seemed to viscerally mirror the alluring and unsettling unknowns in Earhart’s disappearance. I wrote the novel mostly in caffeine-fueled delirious hours between four and six in the morning before I went to my job teaching high school English.

When I first started working on the novel, Nick and I had just met. The novel was about Amelia, a high school student named for Earhart, trying to decide if the truest, best thing for her to do was to leave (something her mother and her grandmother had never been able to) or stay in her hometown. I’d been thinking about how leaving the familiar is often presented as an heroic necessity, a foil to a pathetic martyr figure who stays out of a boring and frightened sense of duty. But I had been wondering if home wasn’t sometimes just as hard, important, heroic in its own non-martyrish way. One of many problems with the novel is that I’m still not entirely sure how to make clear the forces that made Amelia feel she needed to stay. The reasons she might give appear small or even mundane: a loyalty to her mother, fear of being responsible for a boyfriend’s demise. But these kind of fears are also big; these quiet, individual decisions add up to make a life.

3.
coverWhen I taught high school, I often assigned essays from Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk. I must have read “Total Eclipse” many times, but I re-read it in the summer of 2017 with a new and self-absorbed fascination. When The Atlantic reprinted the essay in August, the pull quote was Dillard’s declaration that “seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him.” When we were planning our trip, Nick had explained to us that even one percent visibility would mean enough light that the sky would only appear dusky because the sun is so much brighter than the moon. In the path of totality, though, we might see the corona, a halo of the sun’s visible atmosphere. Dillard’s description of the emotional disorientation of the eclipse sparked something I was giddy to experience. Dillard writes:

If I had not read that it was the moon, I could have seen the sight a hundred times and never thought of the moon once. (If, however, I had not read that it was the moon—if, like most of the world’s people throughout time, I had simply glanced up and seen this thing—then I doubtless would not have speculated much, but would have, like Emperor Louis of Bavaria in 840, simply died of fright on the spot.)

In the days leading up to our trip, I included this final detail in every conversation about what we might see in Kansas.

On our drive from the airport to the farm, I’d looked hopefully at the satellite weather report on my phone, but as the moments of totality neared, the patchy cloud cover I’d been willfully ignoring grew thicker, stretching to the horizon in every direction. We would not see the moon eclipse the sun.

About 30 seconds before totality, Simon woke up crying. I pulled his stroller over the long, uneven farm grass, under a tent that had been set up to cover the concession stand. In spite of the all the publicity for the eclipse, the scene on the farm felt like a backyard picnic my Pa would have approved of. Simon was wide awake and his cry sounded frantic—scared and insistent, not one I’d come to recognize from his usual needs—so I scooped him up and held him in my arms. It started to rain hard in the way I remember from Midwestern late afternoons in my childhood. This rain smelled like humidity trapped in the Great Plains and Kansas grass and farms. From under the tent, I watched the sky get dark—darker than even Dillard’s essay had prepared me for—but mostly I watched the people watching the sky. When totality began, a recording told us it was safe to take off our glasses. People chuckled good-naturedly; we hadn’t been able to see the sun at all in some time. The grade school-aged grandchildren of the farmers who had been busy starting an abandoned tractor with a screwdriver became still. We couldn’t see what was happening, but still everyone stopped and watched the sky in the rain. Thea stood between my parents and Nick, all of their eyes turned upward. Two minutes and 38 seconds later, the recording said, “Totality Ending. Glasses on. Glasses on.” Everyone laughed again. Standing a bit apart from the rest of my family, I held Simon close and watched Nick hug each of my parents. He didn’t look disappointed but grateful. When we were planning the trip, I imagined the experience would be enormous, dramatic, violent even. Instead it was intimate.

I walked out from under the tent so we could make our way to the car. In Dillard’s essay, she describes how quickly, fearfully even, the eclipse-watchers fled the places they’d sought out to watch the event: “[W]e never looked back. It was a general vamoose, and an odd one, for when we left the hill, the sun was still partially eclipsed—a sight rare enough, and one which, in itself, we would probably have driven five hours to see.”

Even as we were leaving the farm, everyone was talking about the 2024 eclipse. Hidden from our view by the clouds, the moon’s shadow had rushed toward us at around 1,700 miles an hour. We’d been awed despite what we’d missed; what was seven years to wait for a chance to see it again? I turned 35 the morning after the eclipse and thought as I sometimes do about how strange it is to feel like the exact same little girl who spent summers running around on long Kansas grass, and at the same time to have lived almost—if I’m lucky—half my life already.

Somehow, for all the times I’d read Dillard’s essay, I’d never understood how deeply she connects the eclipse to mortality. “It had been like dying,” she begins. “It had been like the death of someone, irrational, that sliding down the mountain pass, and into the region of dread.” No matter how rationally we can understand the fact of an eclipse, the experience of the sun disappearing midday is a visceral reminder of “what our sciences cannot locate or name…our complex and inexplicable caring for each other, and for our life together here.”

4.
When I was pregnant with Thea, I set her due date as my writing deadline: finish a draft of my novel, even if it was horrible, before I went into labor. I did. In those early months of sleep-deprived parenthood, the novel sat in the top drawer of my desk. When I was starting to pick back up the pieces of my pre-motherhood self, I went on an easy run around our neighborhood, and then I started writing in my journal. I revised some old essays, went back to work, trained for a half marathon, but still the novel sat in my drawer.

Last summer, pregnant with my son, I took the manuscript out. Some of the things I remembered being very bad really were very bad. But there were some sentences I really liked. And some ideas I really liked. I wrote a new section, from Amelia’s mother’s point of view. The novel had always been about women, but I realized it might become a story about mothers and daughters. I liked thinking that the reason I hadn’t been able to sit down and revise it was because it really wasn’t done yet. I had a new perspective and story to tell.

When we’re back visiting Kansas City, I find myself drawn to two distinct layers of family history. First I see the younger version of my parents, stories I’ve heard, old houses we’ve driven past, family lore from their childhoods. I can imagine my mom driving through Kansas’s Flint Hills on her way from her law school apartment in Lawrence to her parents’ home in central Kansas, my dad and my uncle playing baseball in the railroad towns in Missouri. I know the stories I’m conjuring are inaccurate, warped by the limits any child has of understanding her parents as adults separate from parenthood, but still this past generation feels only just out of reach. The other current that runs through the land out our car window is more vague, romantic, eerie.

My mom has spent the past two decades digging deeper and deeper into our genealogy, and so often family trips have included a detour to the Providence Historical Society or, once, a cemetery on the outskirts of a farm in unincorporated Randolph County, Mo. Genealogy was appealing to the former attorney in her. She told me she like the research, the sense of progress, the communities of disparate and cooperative strangers sharing scans of birth certificates and hunches about names whose spellings had been changed.

Thea’s middle name is Louise, after both my dad’s mom and my own mom, who themselves were named for other Louises. Not long after Thea was born, I signed up for my own Ancestry.com account. I’d been thinking a lot about generations of Louises who’d become mothers before me, and I’d also been fascinated by wondering what my daughter had inherited from me and from my husband. I pored through the decades of work my mom had done, branches off of branches on my family tree, names repeated, predictably at first and then less conventionally. Louises in New England port cities, Louises farming in Appalachia, Louises in Central Missouri, Louises traveling west through Kansas. Louises passing down stories.

I had this idea that going back to Kansas to see the eclipse would give me some sort of clarity about the future of this project. Should I finish the novel?

Instead of finding clarity specific to my novel, I felt something only tangentially related to my writing. I felt a little proud and a little less embarrassed to be carving out time to write instead of being “a real writer” (whatever that might mean). The legacy of carving out time, like Nick does in his search for lensed quasars, came to feel like part of the same bigger project. In this work, we are connected to the quiet, intimate work of the amateurs (genealogists, storytellers, astronomers) who preceded us.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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Holden Caulfield and the Culture of Sexual Assault

Since it came out in 1951, The Catcher in the Rye has meant different things to different readers. For some, Holden Caulfield was the rebellious voice of a generation; for many today, he’s a whiny rich kid; for a pair of recent biographers, he’s the rechanneled trauma of J.D. Salinger’s experience in World War II. But one of its less remarked-upon qualities strikes me as absolutely pivotal for the concerns of the day: the book’s focus on sexual abuse and on the culture that fosters it. Abuse draws lines between characters, permeates the social atmosphere of the novel, and drives its hero to anger and despair.

One reason we miss this theme is because the narrator is a horny 1950s prep-schooler who calls women “whory,” gay men “flits,” and whose general behavior is, well, crummy. When it comes to analyzing toxic masculinity, we’re accustomed to exterior rather than interior critique. That Holden’s position is compromised, that he’s trapped inside the castle of mid-century American male power, is part of what gives the book its dizzying force. Caught within that world, Holden has no choice but to create his own language, his own moral system, and in veering off from the mainstream he ends up half-crazy and deeply alone.

In an early scene, Holden hangs around the dorms while his brawny roommate, Stradlater, prepares for a date with Jane Gallagher. Jane happens to be Holden’s long-time crush, the only person he trusted enough show the baseball mitt of his dead brother, Allie. He feels terrified for Jane given his experience with Stradlater’s behavior on double dates: “What he’d do was, he’d start snowing his date in this very quiet, sincere voice—like as if he wasn’t only a very handsome guy but a nice, sincere guy, too. I damn near puked, listening to him. His date kept saying, ‘No—please. Please, don’t. Please.’ But old Stradlater kept snowing her in this Abraham Lincoln, sincere voice, and finally there’d be this terrific silence in the back of the car.” Anyone nostalgic for the simple goodness of the 1950s should consider passages like these, where a woman’s “No” was optional and frequently trespassed. In contrast, Holden later claims that he’s still a virgin because he always stops at “No,” so what sets him apart from Stradlater and Co. is his refusal to commit what today we’d classify as sexual assault.

Desperate to humanize Jane in Stradlater’s eyes, Holden describes how when Jane played checkers she’d line up all her kings in the back row and never move them. Ignored, Holden tries to fight Stradlater, who pins him to the ground while Holden bawls that “the reason [Stradlater] didn’t care is because he’s a goddamn stupid moron.” The insult makes perfect sense to Holden, a line drawn in the sand between those who can appreciate a girl’s checkers technique and those who can’t, those who treat women as objects and those who value their idiosyncrasy. The allusion gathers emotional force later on when Holden recalls comforting Jane after her stepfather interrupts their game of checkers. Jane’s stepfather is a “booze hound” with a habit of going naked around the house, and his arrival puts Jane in tears. By now it’s an interpretive commonplace that Holden wants to protect those around him, as in his signature fantasy about catching kids before they fall off a cliff (“the catcher in the rye”), but less attention is paid to the real dangers from which he wants to protect them: guys like Stradlater and Jane’s stepfather.

These guys are everywhere, and not just at prep school. In New York City, sitting alone at a piano bar, Holden sizes up the phonies around him, especially the “Ivy League bastard” next to him with a date: “What he was doing, he was giving her a feel under the table, and at the same time telling her all about some guy in his dorm that had eaten a whole bottle of aspirin and nearly committed suicide. His date kept saying to him, ‘How horrible…Don’t, darling. Please, don’t. Not here.’” Notice how exactly the young woman’s refusals (“Please, don’t”) echo those of Stradlater’s date (“Please, don’t. Please.”). And then there’s the strangeness of the young man’s anecdote, which is Salinger at his darkest and most jarring, punching holes in the edifice of 1950s life, showing the yammer behind the static. Why is “the Ivy League bastard” feeling up his date while telling her about his suicidal dorm mate? Out of twisted grief? To lower her defenses? We know nothing about him, and yet the intertwining of death with male aggression pulls us toward the depths of The Catcher in the Rye. “What I really felt like, though, was committing suicide,” Holden says hours later after his botched encounter with a sex worker and her john. “I felt like jumping out the window.” Suicide, like assault, lurks just under the surface.

In the climactic scene, Holden sneaks back into his parents’ house and wakes up his sister, Phoebe. After initially embracing him, Phoebe soon grows doubtful, realizes that he’s been kicked out of school, and asks her brother what we’ve been wondering all along: Why is he so mad? and Why does he hate everyone? Holden has no good answer, but instead he thinks back to a traumatic memory from his old prep school. After a “skinny little weak-looking” guy, James Castle, called a classmate named Stabile “conceited,” Stabile and his friends went to Castle’s rooms, locked the door, and tried to make him take it back. When Castile refused, “they started in on him. I won’t even tell you what they did to him—it’s too repulsive—but he still wouldn’t take it back…Finally, what he did, instead of taking back what he said, he jumped out the window.” We can infer that the “repulsive” behavior of Stabile and his friends is sexually abusive, linking them to Stradlater and Jane’s stepfather, and Castile’s suicide to Holden’s impulse to leap out a window. Holden’s only comfort is that his English teacher, Mr. Antolini, wraps up Castle’s dead body, which Holden sees on the ground, and carries it to the infirmary. And so it makes sense that, with nowhere else to turn, Holden hurries out of his parents’ apartment and spends the night on the couch of Mr. Antolini, who, though drinking heavily and lecturing Holden on value of a good education, is still the only authority figure whom Holden trusts.

And yet, the book reveals Mr. Antolini to be himself a sexual aggressor, who caresses and stares at Holden’s body while he sleeps and then instantly turns the blame around, calling Holden a “very strange boy” when he leaps up to go. Some readers describe this scene as out-of-the-blue or they defend Mr. Antolini’s conduct as ambiguous, but that’s only if you’ve missed the undercurrents of the whole novel. This is a massive betrayal. As he rushes out, Holden thinks, “That kind of stuff’s happened to me about twenty times since I was a kid. I can’t stand it.” He’s caught in a net of abuse, and totally alone. If Holden’s anger derives not just from petty vendettas against his prep school classmates but as a terrifying glimpse into a world of pervasive abuse and indifference, in which sincerity is a ploy for date rape and phony lectures are a pretext for unwanted touches, then maybe Holden isn’t so whiny after all. Maybe he’s right.

Since the revelation of widespread sexual harassment in Hollywood, the media, and politics, there’s been a lot of talk about the proper role and response of men. Standing up for victims of sexual assault is clearly essential, but the work shouldn’t stop there. If a male reckoning with the culture of sexual assault is to transcend apologies and hand-wringing, then what’s required is a serious dive into vulnerability, a return to the fears and destructive forces that shaped us as kids. All men have known Stradlater, and Jane’s stepfather, and the “Ivy League bastard,” and more than want to admit have been taken advantage of by Mr. Antolini. And many, too, have been Holden: desire with nowhere to hide, tenderness with nowhere to go. The time to be honest has arrived. Anything less is, as Holden might say, worse than phony.

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Roberto Bolaño’s Guide to Complicity

A few years ago, getting lectured by an online dictionary blog post about being complicit with evil would have been incredibly bizarre. But we live in bizarre times. As its choice for 2017 Word of the Year, Dictionary.com chose “complicit.” Here is an excerpt from said blog post (which is well worth a read in its entirety) announcing the choice:

As we do the hard work of processing what this all means, we must examine our own behavior and ask ourselves some difficult questions. Could I have spoken out in the past…and didn’t? Did I go along with something because it was the path of least resistance?

Complicity is in the air. Just this month, a Donald Trump campaign ad said that, because of their refusal to fund a wall on the Mexican border, “Democrats…will be complicit in every murder committed by illegal immigrants.” And last year began with the international Women’s March and ended with #MeToo (and its smaller male cousin, #IWill). It was a year that made people look themselves in the eye and ask how they can do better. One could say that as much as 2017 was the year of “complicit,” it was the year of “publicly refusing to be complicit.”

This is the context in which I decided to re-read Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile. Bolaño’s novella is a psychological portrait of complicity, and the ways in which we rationalize our complicity. The story is framed as the deathbed confession of Father Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix, a priest, poet, and literary critic who lived through the military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Father Urrutia Lacroix’s account is best read as an apology—not in the popular sense of saying sorry, but in the older sense of “a defense, excuse, or justification in speech or writing.” (Thank you, Dictionary.com.) “One has a moral obligation to take responsibility for one’s actions, and that includes one’s words and silences, yes, one’s silences, because silences rise to heaven too, and God hears them, and only God understands and judges them, so one must be very careful with one’s silences,” he says. And yet, he is defiant: “My silences are immaculate.” His prosecutor, such as it is, is a shadowy, surreal figure referred to only as “the wizened youth.”

The rest of the book turns out to be a catalogue of Urrutia’s silences when they most matter. In the first section of the book, before Pinochet’s coup, Urrutia glides into the upper reaches of Chile’s literary elite on the wings of his mentor, the aristocratic, lecherous critic Farewell. Urrutia starts writing book reviews under the pseudonym Father H. Ibacache, a name that he plans on using to advance his career as a poet by reviewing “Father Urrutia Lacroix’s” poetry in glowing terms. After being sent on a junket arranged by two mysterious businessmen, Mr. Raef and Mr. Etah—“Fear” and “Hate” backwards—to study church preservation in Europe (as it turns out, every priest he meets is using trained falcons to kill the pigeons shitting on their churches), Urrutia returns to Chile to find his country in an uproar. “My country was not in a healthy state. This is no time to dream, I said to myself, I must act on my principles. This is no time to go chasing rainbows, I said, I must be a patriot.”

His chosen course of action is to start reading all of ancient Greek literature, starting with Homer. “Let God’s will be done, I said. I’m going to reread the Greeks.” What follows is Bolaño’s breathless, surreal history of Salvador Allende’s ill-fated socialist presidency. As the copper mines are nationalized, as the protests grow, and as the tanks begin to roll, Urrutia stays in his room, reading his Greeks. And then, Urrutia says, “came the coup d’état, the putsch, the military uprising, the bombing of La Moneda and when the bombing was finished, the president committed suicide and that put an end to it all. I sat there in silence, a finger between the pages to mark my place, and I thought: Peace at last.”

After Pinochet is installed in power, and Chile’s elites have taken a victory lap (“They’re going to give me back my estate” Farewell whispers to Urrutia Lacroix at Pablo Neruda’s funeral), Mr. Raef and Mr. Etah approach Father Urrutia with a new, secret assignment: Teaching Pinochet and his inner circle about Marxism. When Urrutia hesitates to accept, the visit gets less pleasant. “Don’t get coy with us, said Mr. Etah, this is an offer no one can refuse. An offer no one would want to refuse, said Mr. Raef in a conciliatory tone.” After the first lesson, Urrutia agonizes over the question of necessity. “Did I do what I had to do? Did I do what I ought to have done?…Is it always possible for a man to know what is good and what is bad?” Later, when Urrutia asks Farewell if he did the right thing by accepting the job, Farewell asks him outright: “Was it a necessary or an unnecessary course of action?” “Necessary, necessary, necessary,” he responds.

The twin pillars of Urrutia’s apology are a denial of any agency in his actions, and a minimizing of the damage wrought by Pinochet’s regime. At times, he blames individual figures like Mr. Raef and Mr. Etah, “since they were the ones who got me into that business in the first place.” Mostly, however, he blames history. “An individual is no match for history,” he says. Father Urrutia’s view of history is a classically Greek one, history as a never-ending cycle of retribution that leads ultimately to some temporary state of balance. “Sooner or later everyone would get their share of power again. The right, the center and the left, one big happy family.” And he dismisses years of brutality and oppression under Pinochet as, “A couple of ethical problems…Just a little bout of fever! Just three acts of madness! Just an unusually prolonged psychotic episode!” This is how Urrutia keeps his own complicity at arm’s length: If no one individual or their actions can stem the tides of history, how can he be to blame for anything that has happened? He even uses that age-old tool, obfuscation: “Sometimes, at night, I would sit on a chair in the dark and ask myself what difference there was between fascist and rebel. Just a pair of words. Two words, that’s all. And sometimes either one will do!”

It is evident that Urrutia does not believe his own argument that individual decisions don’t matter (or knows his audience does not) because of the lengths he goes to in downplaying his part in the novella’s finale. Urrutia explains how Chilean writers and intellectuals began to congregate at a series of literary soirees in an elegant home, hosted by an aspiring Chilean novelist named Maria Canales and her husband, an American businessman. “We were bored. We read and we got bored…Splendid isolation has never been our style, and back then, as now, Chilean artists and writers needed to gather and talk, ideally in a pleasant setting where they could find intelligent company.” A pleasant setting which, he explains, was hard to come by in the days of curfews and military patrols under Pinochet, patrols which never seem to come to Canales’s house. One night, a drunk party guest poking around in the basement finds a room with a naked man blindfolded and strapped to an electrified torture device known as “la parilla” (the grill). The guest—“a theorist of avant-garde theater”—closes the door and goes back upstairs to rejoin the guests.

Urrutia, with his detailed recollections of these parties and his conversations with Canales, says he hardly went to the house:

I didn’t go every week. I put in an appearance chez Maria Canales once a month. Or even less often. But there were writers who went every week. Or more! They all deny it now. They even claim I was the true habitue, present every week without fail. Or twice, three times a week! But…we can rule that out straightaway. My visits were rare. Infrequent, at worst.

He also questions why no one spoke up after finding out about the torture chamber in the basement, even as he justifies his own silence. “I was not afraid. I would have been able to speak out, but I didn’t see anything, I didn’t know until it was too late. Why go stirring up things that have gradually settled down over the years?”

Urrutia is as unreliable a narrator as they come. Even if he were not a liar and a dissembler, with his literary double-dipping, even if he did not have an agenda of clearing his name (“Oh my poor memory. My poor reputation,” he laments at one point), his recollections are those of a feverish, dying man: fragmentary, contradictory, and hallucinatory. There is no reason to believe him, then, when he says he did not know about the torture chamber until it was too late to do anything. His image of the man strapped to the table is so vivid, in fact, it even calls into question whether it was he who discovered the hidden room, or if there was more than one discoverer. If he was willing to give lessons in Marxist theory to Pinochet knowing his lessons would be used to quash dissent (“I know how far I am prepared to go myself, I assure you. But I also want to know how far they are prepared to go,” Pinochet himself tells him), the idea of his drinking cognac and reciting poetry upstairs from an actual torture chamber is hardly a stretch. Urrutia gives himself away when he says, “with time, vigilance tends to relax, because all horrors are dulled by routine.”

Nor is Urrutia a sympathetic character. Pitiable, yes—he is a closeted gay man, cowardly, lonely, wracked with guilt and disease—but not sympathetic. He touts his pure Basque and French bloodline and turns up his nose at ordinary Chileans, from the farmers he encounters on Farewell’s estate (“The women were ugly and their words were incoherent. The silent man was ugly and his stillness was incoherent…God have mercy on me and on them.”) to the “office drones” in a coffee shop in Santiago (“Pigs suffer too.”). He is unable to look outside of his own sufferings, his intellectual misfortunes, even as a tyrannical military regime tightens its grip on power. And he refuses to accept even a shred of responsibility for his actions, to the point of absurdity. Of his membership in Opus Dei, the secret Catholic order that reportedly had several members in Pinochet’s cabinets, he says, “I was probably the most liberal member…in the whole Republic.”

By Night in Chile is (predictably) a distinctly Chilean novel, with distinctly Chilean resonances. And yet, I found myself increasingly, uncomfortably seeing myself in Father Urrutia and his passivity. After all, my response to confronting my potential complicity in any number of American and world horrors was to re-read Bolaño. Is that really so different from Urrutia’s decision to re-read Thucydides as the Chilean army descended on the presidential palace? I am currently in Europe—Oxford, specifically—reading for a master’s degree in classical literature, literally reading the very same Greeks he mentions. Meanwhile, this month the White House announced the deportation of over 200,000 Salvadoran residents of the United States of America and the president denounced whole regions of the earth as “shitholes.” How do I justify that? We cannot allow ourselves to stop caring about culture just because we’re anxious about the future of society (when will we not be anxious about that?) or allow authoritarianism to monopolize art, but don’t those of us privileged enough and educated enough to make our voices heard owe some debt to the world beyond debating film aesthetics and narrative devices in Victorian novels?

There is a fine line between using culture as a tool to better society, and clinging to one’s cultured, elite status as a tool of oppression, and By Night in Chile shows how easily that line is crossed. All one has to do is say nothing, drink the wine, “smile beatifically.” And if you see something that makes you uneasy, just go back upstairs to the party, and continue saying nothing.

I don’t have any definitive answers. Maybe the truth is what Father Urrutia tells “the wizened youth,” the shadowy, prosecutorial figure who torments him at various points throughout the book, and to whom Urrutia addresses some of his most pointed defenses. That is, perhaps the existence of a literary elite depends on some degree of despotism. “That is how literature is made, that is how the great works of Western literature are made. You better get used to it, I tell him.” And, indeed, this is the rationalization that seems as if it might finally grant Father Urrutia some relief from his pangs of conscience: his defenselessness against history. “The wizened youth has always been alone, and I have always been on history’s side.”

Only, it is not so simple. “The wizened youth, or what is left of him, moves his lips, mouthing an inaudible no.” As the novella reaches its conclusion, Father Urrutia at last begins to understand something the reader might have suspected all along:

And little by little the truth begins to rise like a dead body…I can see its shadow rising. Its flickering shadow…And then, in the half-light of my sickness, I see his fierce, his gentle face, and I ask myself: Am I that wizened youth? Is that the true, the supreme terror, to discover that I am the wizened youth whose cries no one can hear? And that the poor wizened youth is me?

Anyone who devotes a considerable amount of their life to literature must learn to make peace with these two sides of themselves: the passive intellectual, swept along by history. and the wizened youth, mouthing an inaudible no in the shadows.

The post Roberto Bolaño’s Guide to Complicity appeared first on The Millions.

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The Beautiful Faraway: Why I’m Grateful for My Soviet Childhood

At 10 I wanted to be an artist, practiced a hysterical form of Christianity, talked to trees, and turned a sunset at a local park into a visionary experience. My great-aunt lured me to Evangelical Christianity with the strangeness of Gospel stories where Jesus always ended up angry at his disciples’ failure to understand. I sympathized with being misunderstood, and latched on. Besides, Christianity was a forbidden fruit in Soviet Russia so I had to worship in secret. This was unnerving but also alluring. I was a breathless romantic who wanted to be surprised by a knight on a white horse. From the early ‘80s to the early ‘90s, my childhood was formed by the images, atmosphere, and allusiveness of Soviet songs.

I grew up in an artistic family where emotions flew high. I was the kind of imaginative child who could spin an entire tale from an oblong stain on the kitchen table. But there’s more to it than that. My family was not always idealistic or romantic, especially not in New York in the early ‘90s when they were too busy looking for a job or navigating the Byzantine rules of the pluperfect in English. So I attribute at least half of my preteen sensibility to growing up on Soviet songs that embarked on flights of fancy, made an idol of hope, and regaled its young audiences with a strange perspective on time.

Remembering my childhood now that I have a child of my own, I realize that it’s not so bad for childhood to be a land of illusion, ideological and otherwise. After all, “illusion” comes from illudere which means to “play with”—so every kind of illusion can become a playground for imagination. To harbor illusions is to hope, to dream, to construct imaginary landscapes and characters. But illusion does more than stimulate the imagination; it can also stimulate emotional development as the child dares to imagine a better existence or learn to face her fears.

The earnestness with which they approached the pains of childhood, as well as the equally painful idea that childhood is bound to end—stayed with me through adulthood. Even now, I see the flood of irony in our culture as a certain anxiety about emotional engagement; funny that the Soviet songs’ simple lyrics seem more emotionally mature to me that a lot of mainstream fiction published in The New Yorker.

These songs were also making me self-aware. While enveloping me in the fog of whimsy and illusion, Soviet songs also showed me how to notice of the work of mythmaking, the snares of narrative, the “ardor of art.” The songs taught me to dream while distrusting the hopefulness of dreams. Hopeful yet often uneasy about what’s to come, they made me interrogate my future—and my childhood—in ways that were revealing and even frightening. To cope with this ambivalence, I started making art. Perhaps the best way to harness illusions is by creating your own.

1. “The Winged Swing

The Soviet songs of my childhood were replete with images of clouds, the sky, or even flight.  “The Winged Swing” begins with a boy’s melodious voice over some shimmering piano chords and then is backed up by a lush children’s chorus along with some ’80’s electronic percussion. This is the main song from the 1980 miniseries The Adventures of the Elektronic (about a robot boy posing as his human double) and it includes the following lyrics:

The beginning of the April
Snow in the park begins to thaw,
And the jolly winged swing
Is beginning to take off.

Everything has been forgotten,
Frozen heart inside the chest,
Just the sky, the wind and gladness
Will be awaiting us ahead!

The winged swing is a pretty straightforward metaphor for something that takes you away from your troubles and literally brings you closer to “sky, wind, and gladness,” allowing you to come closer to the beautiful unknown. Weirdly, the swing also makes you painfully aware of the end of childhood:

Childhood won’t last forever,
It will be over in the end,
Kids will turn into grown men,
Each will go his own way.
But so far we are still children,
We have time for growing yet,
Just the sky, the wind and gladness
Will be awaiting us ahead!

This cultivated, somewhat maudlin nostalgia for childhood becomes even stranger when you consider that the robot singing the song about the swing is posing as an 11-year-old boy in a local Soviet school and that his audience—within the fictional framework of the film and outside of it—consists of other children. Why does the winged swing take us out of the painful present, make us realize we’re children, and move us towards the future? And what is Soviet about this whole set-up?

Addressing the stars of Soviet literature at the Soviet Writers Congress in 1934, the Central Committee Secretary Andrei Zhdanov gave an important speech that codified Soviet aesthetics for decades to come. In this speech, he argued that Socialist Realism was to depict reality in its revolutionary development. (If writers didn’t conform to this aesthetic policy, they would be unpublished and shunned.) This demand is a contradiction in terms, and a fascinating one: it’s already difficult to depict “reality,” whatever we believe this reality to be, but what exactly is its “revolutionary development”? Zhdanov, Maxim Gorky, and others dictating Soviet aesthetic policy saw no contradiction since they saw the reality of the Soviet Union—its rapid industrialization and growth, as well as its high-ranking literacy—as being precisely in line with the goals of the 1917 October Revolution. So for Party officials, all art had to reflect the ways in which Soviet society followed revolutionary goals. But the way this policy trickled down to the producers of mass art and media was to cause a permanent confusion between past, present, and future. In children’s media, “revolutionary development” became simplified to a vision of the future that was immanent in the present but still had to be aspired to.

Thus, the “winged swing” is a metaphor for a kind of faith—in the system, or in a better life—that will literally propel children to the future of “gladness.” They will leave aside both the troubles of the present and the realization that adulthood is inevitable. Paradoxically, what gives the winged swing momentum is the very nostalgia for the childhood from which it’s taking us away. This song impacted me precisely because of this mélange of sadness and hopefulness, vague and manufactured as it may be.

As a child, I felt a certain nostalgia about endings. The end of summer, the season of our dacha with its many hours of shadow-dappled indolence spent making a long-legged man out of Play-Doh, watching the family of hedgehogs drink milk out of a saucer on the attic balcony and easing my phobia of the attic, practicing my TV-announcer skills on the pear trees in the orchard, watching the electric-green dragonfly drag its exotic body across the train platform. The end of an illness when I wouldn’t be pampered anymore. The end of a train ride, even.

And hope, joy? There was always hope, a kind of banal hope, that it would all repeat, that it would all be as wonderful as before. The tension between this hopefulness and its counterpart, a sinister air of foreboding, an anxiety about what’s to come, is at the crux of the way the songs I listened to defined my Soviet childhood.

2. “May There Always Be Sunshine


The ambivalence of Soviet songs stemmed from their bittersweet treatment of childhood as a time of possibility but also of losses, present and future. The 2015 American Disney film Inside Out made headlines in the world of popular culture because it valorized sadness as the emotion that help the child protagonist come to terms with big changes in her life. But children’s media in the Soviet Union had been aware of this at least 35 years ago. As strange as it can sound, making a child nostalgic for her own childhood can be beneficial in forging self-awareness, specifically, the understanding that this period in her life is not permanent. Perhaps this self-inflicted nostalgia also doubled as a wink towards the childhood of the Soviet Union—the Russian Revolution, whose aims were betrayed at its inception.

coverSome of the songs of my childhood pointed not towards the future but towards the eternal Now. The 1962 song “May There Always Be Sunshine!” was written by the famous children’s writer Korney Chukovsky, who claimed that the refrain was composed in 1928 by the four-year-old boy Kostya Barannikov. Written by a child, the song was about a child and performed by a child, and thus, seemed to give children agency. “May There Always Be Sunshine” juxtaposed a children’s choir with a march rhythm and a child solo singing the refrain. Translated into English, the song was adopted by Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie and became an anti-war anthem:

“Bright blue the sky,
Sun up on high –
That was the little boy’s picture.
He drew it for you,
Wrote for you, too
Just to make clear what he drew.

Chorus (twice):
May there always be sunshine,
May there always be blue skies,
May there always be mommy,
May there always be me!”

The song ends with “Down with all war!/ We want no more./ People stand up for you children.

Sing everyone -/ Peace must be won,/ Dark clouds must not hide the sun.” A couple of years after the Soviet invasion of Hungary and a few years before its invasion of Czechoslovakia, it seems sentimental and downright disingenuous to associate the Soviet Union with peace. Yet singing about peace—even if such peace is a counterfactual—can become the first step to envisioning it as a viable possibility.

covercoverCommenting on two impossibly “hopeful” texts, the late philosopher Richard Rorty bids us to “concentrate on the[ir] expressions of hope. We should read both [The New Testament and The Communist Manifesto] as inspirational documents, appeals to what Lincoln called ‘the better angels of our nature’, rather than as accurate accounts of human history or of human destiny.” In other words, it’s not as important that The New Testament and The Communist Manifesto do not reflect humanity’s faults in a viable, realistic way; what’s more important is that they show us a different way to be. These documents are aspirational and idealistic; they are literally visionary in displacing the reality of the present moment with a dream of a better (more virtuous, more just) future.

“May There Always Be Sunshine” also hovers in the uncertain verb tense of dreams—the conditional/subjunctive/future. Singing about peace might not help achieve it, but it might help us envision a world where peace is, indeed, possible, against all odds. It’s a dream of a child who wants herself, mommy, and blue skies to persist in the Eternal Now, which is especially poignant given that 1962—the year the song was written—was the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the heart of the nuclear threat.

covercoverIn the 1980s, I was secretly an Evangelical Christian. I believed in the parables of The New Testament and the miracle math of feeding a crowd of 3,000 with five loaves of bread. I believed in the vision of the lion lying down with the lamb and turned a blind eye to apocalypse. I also believed The Little Prince was real. After I read The Master and Margarita in the early ’90s, I believed that “to each will be according to their own belief.” Yet this, too, was a fierce belief like any other. I was drunk on belief, and the idea that belief—my belief!—has consequences. “May there always be…” always excites me with its ellipses, but the first part of the phrase, the invocation of a hidden force, is even more inebriating.

3. “Cheburashka


Many Soviet children’s songs also thrived on nostalgia as well as a longing for the idyllic future. The classic 1966 cartoon Cheburashka is about a misfit toy that is “an animal unknown to science.” The Cheburashka birthday song created its memorable tune through the accordion riding on top of some gentle percussion. With monkey ears and the body of a cub, Cheburashka is a lovable misfit who wants a friend and resists all labels. One of its musical numbers became the iconic birthday song for children of all generations to come. These are the coveted wishes of the birthday girl or boy:

“A wizard will suddenly appear
In a blue whirlybird,
And will show me free movies.
He’ll say Happy Birthday
And just before he flies away
He’ll probably leave 500 ice cream cones for me.”

In a country where children’s programming only appeared for two hours a day on a meager two channels in the ’80s and where you had to stand in a long line for an ice cream cone (you also had to wait in line for milk, butter, toilet paper, and many other items), the pleasures were simple.

The “Blue Train” song is even more iconic; nostalgic for the past, it heralds the Soviet promise of a better future ahead as the train propels Cheburashka and his best friend Crocodile Gena into the unknown:

“Slowly the minutes swim far away,
And even though we’re a little sad to let the past go
The best is, of course, yet to come!
Smoothly, smoothly, the far road runs along
And runs up right against the skyline
Everybody, everybody, believes in the best
The blue train rides and rides along.”

“Blue Train” matched the energetic melody of the accordion with the train’s rhythmic to-and-fro; the cartoon ends with the characters riding off into the future we’re not privy to as they sing along to Crocodile Gena’s accordion. As a child in the United States, I longed for the future. I harbored wild fantasies of all the adult things I would do at 12, of trips to Manhattan for “real” chocolate and artisanal bread and the FAO Schwartz Toy Store, of the thrill of high school with its boys and high heels and all the books I would read and the poems I would write. It is a little sad to be living your childhood believing that “the best is, of course, yet to come!” because, in a way, this diminishes the life that you’re living right now. But “hope is the thing with feathers,” and dreaming of a better life really did save me from the doldrums when I was an awkward big-nosed 15-year-old who dressed exclusively in black and read Jean-Paul Sartre. Like “real” Communism for the Soviets, adulthood seemed sweet with promise unattainable, or at least very far away.

covercovercovercoverI don’t remember what I ate or who I talked to, but I do remember that in sophomore year, I was high on William Shakespeare monologues, scribbles in the school library, trips to the Brooklyn Heights Starbucks cafe (my writing haunt) and the Promenade. I didn’t so much dream of the future but surround myself with the dreams of others—Virginia Woolf’s short story about a perfect piece of colored glass, Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha and The Glass Bead Game, Jorge Luis Borges’s Labyrinths, and even a dream gone wrong, Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. The prison house of language became my playground; my future, consciously or unconsciously, became enmeshed with stringing together (or pulling apart, for closer inspection) the glass beads of words and meanings, my own and those of others.

Now I can’t help falling into old habits and keeping to the mantra that “the best is yet to come.” At 34, dealing with my mom’s recent death, meager job prospects, and Donald Trump’s presidency, this is becoming harder to believe than it had been at 15. But I can’t help dreaming, wishing, and hoping. Such hope is often painful in the face of the unpalatable present. Yet it also gives me the capacity to dream of a future that makes a laughable illusion of the present—through the process of making art.

4. “The Beautiful Faraway


While “Blue Train” propels us to a beautiful future, “The Beautiful Faraway” plays with our assumptions about time yet suddenly turns very serious in terms of the speaker’s inner journey. The song appears in the 1985 miniseries The Guest from the Future, which is about a girl from the future who travels to the present and a boy who lives in the year 1984 and travels to the future. The song confides in the listener with its child singer, intimate guitar accompaniment, and some flutes chiming in while the singer implores the future to not be cruel:

“I’m hearing a voice from the wonderful future
The morning’s voice in silver dew
I’m hearing a voice, and the glittering path
Makes my head spin like a carousel from my childhood.
Oh wonderful future,
Don’t be cruel to me.
Towards a wonderful future,
I’m beginning my journey.”

While the voice from the future is beguiling, it also asks “What have I done today to earn tomorrow,” implying the future will only be wonderful if consequences from the present make it so. The song makes childhood a state that is always and already absent, or at least receding into the past as the future, however wonderful, makes its way into the present. The sense of responsibility for the future—and not knowing exactly what this responsibility entails—always made me slightly anxious as I listened. Maybe this was because I didn’t have many responsibilities as a child, and even the knowledge that more will come was anxiety-inducing.  Just as in “Winged Swing,” the foreboding tone of “The Beautiful Faraway” was winning over its hopefulness.

In a strange sense, this song rendered the future as well as beauty itself more abstract and weirdly interchangeable. Was the Beautiful Faraway beautiful because of its abstract positioning in the future? Or did it reside in the future precisely because that was the space for beauty? It was hard to tell. If childhood entails dreaming of the beautiful future and also making sure it comes to be through responsible actions, the song also made childhood come to terms with its own absence. The dream becomes an act of erasure, and the song doesn’t hide it since the narrator is “… hearing a voice, and…hastening towards its call/ On a road with no footprints.” This road with no footprints is the road of childhood. It seems to exist only to bring us closer to the impossible future. And then it is no more.

When I was six, I entertained myself by taking an empty box of chocolates and, Joseph Cornell-style, inserting a miniature character in each empty niche. I would make princesses out of matchsticks with cotton and loose strips of fabric; attach buttons to tall clothespins to make a lopsided face; adorn an empty niche with a shard of glass found on an Odessa beach at night. I didn’t even need dolls or stuffed animals to keep myself amused.

Yet, at other times, dreaming made it impossible to be present or connected to the everyday world. For one thing, my dreams were solitary and didn’t require a companion; so detailed was my fantastical inner life that any intrusion would shatter its fey fragility. And I was encouraged to while my days with my dreams by my parents, sister, and grandparents. Of course, this fueled my imagination, but also became the reason why I only learned to wash by myself at age 11, would fail to make my bed every morning, and never really had any responsibilities.

5. Irony vs. Art
Thus ends the whirlwind tour of the Soviet songs that formed my childhood. Beautifully orchestrated, at times schmaltzy, they imbued me with a sense of longing for my own childhood (almost like the 1960s Soviet bard song “Nostalgia for the Present”). This childhood was like Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s God, a sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere. It was a void that didn’t have any definable characteristics except for longing itself, a space where I could long for an opaque future that also provided a convenient escape from the past. Childhood was a space to dream, even if the dreams I conjured—of kissing my best friend, getting an American Barbie, growing up—were vacuous. They were vacuous because they were born of the collective unconscious of Soviet childhood and were not especially unique to me. But they also provided me with the ability to connect with others, and this was significant. Dreaming the same dream as other little girls made me feel less alone.

And now I’m going to assert something very strange: that Soviet songs (and Soviet popular culture) encouraged me to make art because of their unironic belief in hope. To be capable of enacting even inner change through art-making, you first need to believe that this change is at least possible, that art is even worth making in an age when, most likely, no one will pay you for it and it won’t reach a whole lot of people. To be an artist you need to have hope even when your vision of hope comes against all odds, when others will judge you as naïve for such hopefulness.

According to David Foster Wallace, the so-called “New Sincerity” movement was a cultural response to postmodernist irony and cynicism; its heroes are the anti-rebels “who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval.”

Interestingly, New Sincerity became relevant in the post-Soviet context as scholar Michael Epstein employed it in response to the sense of absurdity permeating Soviet culture. According to Epstein, “Postconceptualism, or the New Sincerity, is an experiment in resuscitating ‘fallen’, dead languages with a renewed pathos of love, sentimentality and enthusiasm.” Because their emotional kernel speaks to a bygone era in the Soviet story, the outmoded languages of Soviet songs should re-emerge for analysis and scrutiny. They speak to the hopefulness of childhood, as well as to our genuine fear as to what will happen if we give in to such hope.

I had such hope because of my Soviet upbringing. Irony doesn’t have to be the opposite of hopefulness, but too much skepticism—the very precondition for irony—can wither ambitions and narrow artistic horizons. At 12 I began writing breathlessly and badly, manically overestimating my abilities, overreaching my boundaries of knowledge and life experience. I was naïve as to the power of language to effect real change in the world and even more naïve about romantic love. But sometimes I think that realistic expectations and the whip of irony would have helped me achieve one thing only: failure.

On the surface, it seems like the Soviet songs I mentioned here aim to imbue us with hope, a confidence in the future. Yet on deeper inspection, they also show the future to be a kind of “confidence game”—constantly receding, never certain, only definite because of a break from the past. The songs make childhood into a state that is defined by perpetual dreaming. The etymology of “child” comes from Proto-Germanic *kiltham (source also of Gothic kilþei “womb,” inkilþo “pregnant.”) In a way, children are pregnant with the future, with the confidence of what’s to come. They are professional dreamers, and this is fascinating and anxiety-inducing at once. Paradoxically, their dreams almost always have to do with the displacement of childhood by a shadowy future self. (Children always play at being doctors and firemen, mommies and daddies, almost never other children.)

On my daughter’s second birthday, my father played “Blue Train” on the accordion and we all sang the Cheburashka birthday song about the wizard descending on a blue helicopter as she blew out the candles. Will she be taken in by songs about “The Beautiful Faraway” and “Winged Swings,” or will she find their sentiments groundless? I really can’t say. But one thing is clear—even now, so many years after my own childhood came and went, I still find myself humming to the tune of “May there always be sunshine.”

 

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The Wolf Is Tearing Up the Place

“The wolf, I’m afraid, is inside tearing up the place.”
Flannery O’Connor

The severity of my daughter’s illness didn’t hit me until the day she collapsed at the hospital. An emergency response team whisked her into surgery to drain her lungs. The next morning, her heart. Her autoimmune condition, dubbed Lupus after the Latin word for wolf, the apex canine predator whose bites its facial rashes resemble, had her in its grip.

I remembered that Flannery O’Connor suffered and died prematurely from the same disease, one in which a body’s immune system wreaks warfare on its own organs. As an aspiring writer, I had embraced her stories then thrilled at the chance to teach them in literature and creative writing courses. With my students, although I’d point out the significance of her Catholicism and the South, I rarely referred to her illness. I failed to consider how the debilitating nature of her Lupus flares mandated that she live with her mother and how this development might have shaped her and the stories she chose to tell.

Flannery O’Connor believed in the autonomy of the text. She rejected the idea that her illness fed her preoccupations with distortion, humor, and redemption, saying, “The disease is of no consequence to my writing since for that I use my head and not my feet.” Her views, however, haven’t stopped critics from examining her work as a metaphor for illness, and her harrowing circumstances do validate the grotesque in her stories. Still, her stories are more than their particulars, these critical slants. They speak to the writer Ben Okri’s statement that “If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives.” Sometimes revisiting a familiar story can help us do just that.

coverIn the wake of my daughter’s diagnosis, O’Connor’s story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” with its murderous characters was an unlikely choice to read. As Okri writes, “Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart bigger.” I came to O’Connor’s story intuitively, craving solace and perspective in a time of dwindling hope and thus approaching it from this new, specific angle. I considered the hard rigor of O’Connor’s disease and the grace manifest in her writing with the aim of puncturing a hole in my fear. I came looking for the “crack in everything” of which Leonard Cohen sings in “Anthem,” because “that’s how the light gets in.” The best stories operate in this realm, a transcendent place that offers a wider context for a painful ordeal.

Devotion and purpose blur emotions when one’s child falls seriously ill. There are tasks. The management of recovery takes up time and ignites skills of advocacy and organization and patience and above all empathy. Post-diagnosis, grateful I’d left my job the previous year and had a settled life that meant flexible time to care for my daughter, I thrummed with compassion, for her heart, her breath, her skin, her energy, for every part of her, for who she was in the world and how the world received her. Yet I had guilt, too, hovering around the edges.

As I taught the story to my writing students, “A Good Man is Hard to Find” explores/reveals the mysteries of faith and acceptance. Through a narrative so familiar to us these days, that of the sociopathic killer and the imprudent, well-meaning victims, O’Connor teases out greater questions about human existence and purpose. Reading the story now, I am struck by how those mysteries speak to the complexities of my own experience.

“I’ve discovered an alternative treatment for your daughter,” a friend says on a walk one morning. “No side effects. You have to go across the border to get it, though.”

She is referring to the visible side effects (weight gain, hair growth) my daughter endures from the corticosteroids that calm the inflammation and pain until her immune system settles, the same corticosteroids that saved her life. This friend’s suggestion demands we eschew a treatment which distorts my daughter’s body in uncomfortable, unattractive ways, even if it means choosing a riskier protocol (taking a drug not approved in our country, for example.)

I get her concern. To those of us not afflicted, the nuances of pain and inflammation, of bodily wounds and invasions, of hair growth and weight gain, of lost mobility and the need to rest, seem monstrous, and especially appalling for a child to bear. Although my friend’s advice expresses care for my girl, I keep a firm stance grounded in what is, rather than what I might wish were true. The exchange leaves me questioning my own empathy and flummoxed (as I often am) by the well-intentioned.

O’Connor endows her characters with afflictions of the body and soul in the name of pushing the boundaries of “mystery,” or the agency of the divine in human affairs. “The central mystery,” she writes, “is why human existence has, for all its horror, been found by God to be worth dying for.” A character like The Misfit in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” perverts the mystery, having decided to “reverse” his soul’s journey through wanton crime. He comes to represent the crux of the riddle of God’s love. Through him, O’Connor grapples with issues of belief and perhaps her own morbidity.

Tending my daughter’s illness raises other questions, akin to O’Connor’s mysteries, about the unusual amount of hardship allotted my child in her life. The Misfit boils down a central choice:

If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.

Indeed, O’Connor would seem not to address indiscriminate suffering, favoring themes of redemption and morality instead, with her focus on “goodness” and the choice to follow Jesus.

coverYet, the world O’Connor builds in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is nothing if not random. Yes, the Grandmother insists the family visit the house from her childhood, steering them onto the rough country road; yes, her son, Bailey, doesn’t stand up to her. In fiction, character can drive plot. Then an accident occurs. And the Misfit and his gang happen to arrive to murder them all. In other words, bad luck, though faith does have a place in this world of chance and hapless choices. This world view I find oddly comforting as I can no longer subscribe to any of the “thoughts causing illness” philosophies floated by new age healing types (see Louise Hay’s You Can Heal Your Life). Not when it’s my child. To me, the coexistence of randomness and faith make comforting sense.

coverO’Connor considered herself to be dying from Lupus from the time of her diagnosis, though she lived with the illness for 23 more years. She spoke to friends about taking steroids to treat her flares: “Cortisone makes you think night and day until I suppose the mind dies of exhaustion if you are not rescued.” She suffered joint pain in her arms, hips and shoulders; blood transfusions; ACTH injections; bed rest; hair loss; necrosis in her jaws; a bloated face, and grew to think that she had shaped the illness through her writing, especially during the creation of Wise Blood: “I conceived the notion that I would eventually become paralyzed and was going blind and that in the book I had spelled out my own course or that in the illness I had spelled out the book.”

Most illuminatingly, she spoke about life before and after a Lupus flare, the fears of what the illness would take and relief at what it allowed. In a letter to Maryat Lee, O’Connor wrote: “This is a Return I have faced and when I faced it I was roped and tied and resigned the way it is necessary to be resigned to death and largely because I thought I would be the end of any creation, any work from me. And as I told you by the fence, it was only the beginning.”

“A Good Man is Hard to Find” is replete with symbols and small, vividly ordinary moments used to intensify horror. After the family, in the wake of their car accident near a “red gutted ditch,” meets The Misfit and his gang, comes the line: “Behind them the line of woods gaped like a dark open mouth.” Nature, like the human maw, consumes, a formless receptacle much like the evil the Misfit embraces.

O’Connor’s stories dwell in a sad emptiness as odd as her own circumstances. Much of her writing centres on issues of class and the equation of coming from “good people” and “goodness.” The Grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” fits this bill. Foolish, vain, manipulative, and judgmental, she pins on a hat with a spray of violets to make the vacation journey. Several times, despite rising evidence to the contrary, she insists the Misfit is a “good man,” without “common blood,” who wouldn’t “shoot a lady.” His “row of strong white teeth” signifies nourishment and a lack of abject poverty and the possibility of being above crime. Indeed, O’Connor’s illness may have felt like a gun to her head, exhorting her to raise questions of faith and grace in her characters’ darkest moments.

One of my grimmest hours came a few days into my daughter’s first hospital stay, pre-diagnosis, when specialists were cycling through the room doing tests, and all options were on the table. My daughter’s white and red blood cell counts had fallen dangerously low. At 4 a.m. a pediatrician doing rounds stopped to tell me she expected the worst. Terminal cancer. As something inside me broke, I wallowed in the dread potential of my daughter’s death. When her diagnosis came two days later, that shattered part of me had retreated, unwilling to scuttle out into the light. It was the fear that chokes all parents made manifest in that half-lit hallway surrounded by lurking shelves of bleached flannel and antiseptic smells and machines humming and every three minutes a long, shrill beep.

O’Connor’s hard vision complicates grace. The Grandmother extolls prayer, chants Jesus’s name, recognizes the unity of The Misfit and her son, but as the Misfit wryly observes, her moment of grace comes too late for this life: “’She would of been a good woman…if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” By the end of the story, The Misfit acknowledges, “It’s no pleasure in life,” cementing his change.

On my daughter’s first day back to school in late October after six weeks off, we stood stoic in the lobby until her grade-four teacher approached. My daughter’s face pinked as she shyly turned into my side and dipped down her chin, her eyes glowing. My eyes watered at how still she held herself as other teachers came. It was as hard if not harder to let her go as it was on the first day of kindergarten. But she didn’t cling.

Aside from the nights when I stayed home with her sister, I’d sat with her through two months at the hospital. I’d witnessed how swiftly a health change could come on, the fever, the working at breathing, the chest pain, the flushed cheeks. I worried about a flare happening at school and nobody noticing. Perhaps my pain was atonement for the summer before her diagnosis when she ached and felt tired and I cajoled her into activities like swimming that she found excruciating. I tell myself I could have done more to make her comfortable. Though I took her often to Emergency and to the doctor, I tell myself I could have done more to find out what was wrong.

It took effort to walk out the school doors and leave her behind. It was the fragility and the attachment and the welling up of her return and what she’d endured and how she’d changed. As Ben Okri says, we are “living the stories we planted—knowingly or unknowingly—in ourselves. We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaningless.” Writing about “A Good Man is Hard to Find” in the wake of my daughter’s Lupus diagnosis admits the story that makes the heart bigger and lets the light in. The story in which a random act can result in a moment of unexpected grace.

Image Credit: Pixabay.

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