When I visited my great-grandparents in Florida as a child, I often shook the trunk of the old orange tree in their front yard. At the time, I did not know of the tangle of roots that stretched for miles below, the worlds upon worlds of living things that existed beneath the surface.
My ancestors picked oranges in the groves of Southern Florida. I imagine their shadows moving against the skyline. Lanky men in straw hats and women with heads covered in sweat-stained rags, hauling ladders and baskets filled with fruit from morning until dusk. Years later, when the men moved from the orange groves to the packing plant, my great-grandmother spent her days cooking and cleaning in someone else’s house. They used to call it “day work” back then, even if the day’s work extended into the night.
We called my great-grandmother Nanny, the name she was given by the white folks she worked for, the name she wore like her lavender church hat on Sundays, fancy and with a fringe of lace. Educated in the ways of the family she cooked and cleaned for, Nanny spent her days watching the world in which her existence was peripheral. Through the corner of her eye she watched. She listened to the house guests, gathered around the table for lunch. She listened with a fierce intent to this world she was not allowed to enter unless bearing a tray of sweet tea for the guests.
It is with a deep sense of urgency that Nanny resolved to learn the careful art of assimilation. It is from this place she returned home to groom her own daughters with hopes that their futures would not be spent in someone else’s kitchen. She corrected their speech, along with their manners, and pulled each girl’s hair back into a single braid. She commanded them to lift their chins and to cross their legs when they sat. They would now carefully unfold their napkins and place them on their laps. And from here on out, you would not say ain’t in this house.
The open arms that once carried baskets filled with fruit in the orange groves now embraced the ways of those who lived in a world of which she would never be a part. I presume that this rejection of her self was not propelled by any sense of shame. To raise her daughters to assimilate with the folds of white culture was instead driven by an instinct for survival.
When the guests left and the children were settled into bed, Nanny polished the silver and cleared the porcelain dishes from the table. She was the silent keeper of the house. Her presence was everywhere and nowhere at the same time. And even now I am reminded of this sense of invisibility in my own life.
A short time ago, one of my students admitted to an assumption she’d made about the setting of an Alice Walker essay. The student’s interpretation of Jim Crow South in rural Tennessee had become, in her mind, an impoverished village of Eastern Europe. Really? Did the histories and struggles of people of color in our own country simply not exist in her mind? I wondered, then, how many other students of European descent were unable to see beyond the reaches of their own experiences. Later I returned to the text in search of clues that led to my student’s misconception. Was it in the descriptions of the rural landscape? What would I find buried in Walker’s sharecropping roots that conjured images of a tiny village in Yugoslavia?
We closed our class discussion with a reflection of how our identities, our histories, and social locations inform our interpretation of the world around us. In hindsight, I recognize that without exposure to the history of the African American experience, why wouldn’t we imagine Walker’s childhood spent in an Eastern European village? When we belong to a privileged group, what motivates us to explore that which exists beyond the margins of what we know?
It occurred to me then that in order to foster a space for critical thought, a thirst for knowledge beyond the picket fence, and to nurture engagement in global citizenship, we must first seek to see, to hear, to smell and taste the world beyond the limitations of our own experiences.
What motivates the human spirit to crack the undisturbed earth with the blade of a shovel and to explore the realm of hidden things that live beneath the surface? Settled back in the easy chair of our own imaginations, where is the impetus to transcend the confines of our own identities? How are we to recognize the great tragedy that most often only half of the story has been told? The roots enable the orange tree to bear fruit, and this is the whole story that I seek to understand.
As a woman of color, for me, it is much more than a search for my own reflection or a wish to transform underrepresented voices from novelty to necessity. I seek to expand the reaches of my own imagination and to transcend the dominant narrative that has shaped my own worldview. Yet, within the context of a segregated community in which social stratification most often occurs along the lines of race, we continue to bear witness to history repeating itself in our own cities and beyond. In the wake of Ferguson and Baltimore and ten years post-Katrina, some of us know fear like we know our own hands. We urge young people toward civic engagement and community service. We send them to public schools and nonprofit organizations with hopes that what they learn in the classroom may find deeper purpose in the presence of real world experience. If there is no pressure to escape the lens of what we know, no longing to seek worlds beyond the limitations of our own experiences, Alice Walker will continue to live in Yugoslavia, and these streets will continue to burn.
We are charged with preparing students to navigate within a world that is unjust. Yet so many young people arrive to our classrooms with a gaping chasm in their worldviews. At the center of this black hole exists a universe filled with moons and stars, all revolving around this sense of one’s own life experience. If not driven by an impulse to seek the discomfort of viewing the world through someone else’s eyes and if the instinct for survival is asleep, how do we inspire young people to engage in global citizenship? How do we challenge them to view the world through multiple perspectives in an effort to illuminate the whole story?
In my own universe, my great-grandmother’s secret power may have only been visible to herself, acknowledged when she looked at her own reflection in the mirror, when she removed her powder blue maid’s uniform and replaced it with a dress of her own.
Nanny died when I was 12 years old. Many years later, when I reflect upon her contributions to my life, I see myself as a daughter of the Third Migration, among the generation of Americans of African descent who returned to the land of their ancestors to learn the whole story. In this place I call home there are many trees in my own front yard, and when I shake the limbs to watch the autumn leaves fall, I feel the strength rooted in the earth below.
Tamiko Ambrose Murray is a writer, a teaching artist and is the co-founder of Asheville Writers in the Schools and Community. She is on the executive committee of Alternate ROOTS, a southeast regional arts service organization for artists, activists and cultural workers, is an Asheville Arts Council Regional Artist Project Grant recipient and received the Wilma Dykeman Award for non-fiction at UNC-Asheville. Her poetry, short stories, and commentaries have appeared in various publications including Verve Magazine, Gentle Strength Quarterly: A Journal of Fine Arts, Headwaters, and the Mountain Xpress. She is an adjunct professor of Literature and Language at UNC-Asheville and is presently writing her first novel.
We hope you enjoy this teaser of, DOLLS, by Stuart Gelzer. The rest of the story can be found in our most recent issue, 64.3.
Though he didn’t know it when he set off for work, Turek had already lost his job. No one had the decency or common sense to call him at home and save him the trip across town (two marshrutkas, both crowded). When he got to the Polytechnic they said they’d been too overwhelmed to think of it, what with everything, blah blah blah, though they were all just sitting around the staff office watching some glitter-covered Kazakh rapper on YouTube—trying to suck up as much Internet as their heads could hold before someone came and repossessed the computers.
Apparently once the head of the Polytechnic had collected all of this term’s tuition (U.S. dollars, cash only, please!), he put it in a suitcase and left for Germany. When Turek said, “Wouldn’t he get stopped at the airport?” the young people looked up from the screen and smiled condescendingly and said, “Turek, Turek!” and rubbed their fingers and thumbs together like carpet merchants—but if these kids were so cool and in the know, what were they still doing here? They went back to watching the Kazakh video, their faces bathed in golden light, and Turek stood there awhile, long enough for them to have forgotten him. Then he said, “So how do I get paid for the weeks I taught so far?” and they didn’t say anything, though one of the young women laughed, maybe at the music video. Because he couldn’t seem to stop himself from asking dumb questions, he said, “Has anyone notified the students?” This time all of them looked up and laughed, and the skinny guy whose name he couldn’t remember said, “Hey, good idea, Turek, why don’t you go down the hall and break the news to your class?”
It was class time, but in the room where he’d been teaching this term he saw only two students, and they were sitting on a desk kissing. Turek said, “Excuse me.” They kept going awhile, and when they stopped they looked annoyed. “Are we bothering you, Dad?” When he told them the Polytechnic was closed the girl said, “What Polytechnic?” So apparently everybody had figured it out except him.
Leaving the dim urine-scented lobby, Turek pushed open the heavy front door that still said Twenty-First Century Polytechnic and went down the wide uneven broken stairs, rusty rebar poking through the gaps in the marble here and there. He stepped back onto the curb to dodge a clanging streetcar, and decided to save his return marshrutka money and go home on foot: after all, what was there to hurry for now? As he walked along Young Pioneer Avenue—it had a new name, but he couldn’t recall it—he pictured his mother, poor woman, all those decades ago in another and simpler world, writing carefully on the title page of the yellowing old book that was to be his graduation present, Remember, now and always, the door to the future stands wide open before you!
Of course, when she said things like that his mother couldn’t imagine the real future, the one in which her beloved Soviet Union fell, first to its knees, then onto its face, then into a dozen bleeding amputated fragments—nor could she imagine that her clean shiny son, the pride of the V. I. Lenin Central School, would grow up to mimic the Soviet Union in everything short of the dismemberment (so far). Maybe it was a good thing that his mother, taken from him so suddenly, had not lived to see Turek in the full fruit of his manhood: desperately clinging to his last few remaining strands of hair, inexplicably bony and a little bit pot-bellied at the same time, forever exploring the gaps left by a couple of strategically missing teeth (all the dentists seemed to have left for Brighton Beach), still short of fifty, and now walking home jobless.
The Wilds: Stories. Julia Elliott.
Leiden: Brill, October 2014. 357 pp.
Reviewed by Paul J. Stapleton
Except to readers of the handful of literary journals where her short stories have variously appeared in the past decade, Julia Elliott, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina, is hardly a household name even among most literati. With the publication of The Wilds, however, a collection of eighteen short stories, which includes the Pushcart Prize-winning entry “Regeneration at Mukti”—in conjunction with the scheduled release of her debut novel, The New and Improved Romie Futch, in 2015—Elliott’s limited reputation is hopefully about to expand to a degree worthy of her talent. Her surprising, haunting imagination and her eye for satire will no doubt bring to mind Flannery O’Connor, but Elliott is a practitioner of an unapologetically postmodernist and posthumanist Southern Gothic, and her pliant, erudite prose and quirky sensibility as a storyteller prove highly reminiscent of T.C. Boyle.
The Wilds delivers a scathing critique of American culture that verges on a prophetic kind of fervor, especially in the opening story “Rapture,” where Elliott performs her best imitation of O’Connor. Here the tone is set for the entire collection, as the character Grandma Meemaw catechizes her granddaughter’s secularized teeny-bopper friends during a sleepover at the family’s dilapidated house on the wrong side of town, having determined that they are far more familiar with the Dixie City Fashion Mall than with the “ruby wounds” of Jesus or the myriad cast of creatures from the Book of Revelation: its various dragons, angels, demons, and, of course, the Whore of Babylon. That night, however, Meemaw drops dead, leaving the “nice” middle-class girls psychically stained with her religious imagination, one which their coifed, Calvin Klein mothers ineffectually try to efface with a trip to the mall in the “sterile air-conditioning” of their Buick LeBaron and “Neil Diamond whining on the radio.” With “Rapture,” Elliott fires her shot across the bow of contemporary Southern culture, and in the pages that follow she fixes her aim upon all the hallowed metanarratives of a society in decay.
The twenty-first-century landscape of The Wilds is squarely set in the Southeast, in the suburban communities of South Carolina and Georgia, and the resorts of coastal Florida, locales where the terrain is “flush with check-cashing shops, car-title-loan joints, strip clubs, and used-car lots,” and the sky is scarlet with “the apocalyptic beauty of the postmodern sunset.” Yet Elliot overlays the Southern quotidian with a perspicacious brand of humorous science fiction that, far from puerile hijinks, conveys a grave posthumanist concern about the future: in “LIMBs” we meet octogenarians, powered by Leg Intuitive Motion Bionics, waning in despair in the unparadisical absurdity of the Eden Village Nursing Home, tethered to life by technology, if not volition; in “The Love Machine” the Frankensteinesque Dr. Dingo manipulates the “neurochemicals of infatuation” in his favorite, humanized robot in the labs at Georgia Tech; in “Feral” a grade-school science teacher and a famous biologist tryst prosaically in a Hampton Inn while an overpopulation of wild “de-domesticated” dogs runs wild through the community; and in “The End of the World,” a married couple lives in a Unabomber-style shack in the hill-country near Clemson, attempting a return-to-nature while the wife simultaneously adjuncts in the English department at the university.
A few of Elliott’s characters abscond from the South and suburbia altogether, as they seek antidotes for their varied permutations of malaise, transported to exotic settings, as in “Regeneration at Mukti,” where Zen-like “clinicians” in an faux Eastern resort administer their quackery to aging Westerners in the form of “controlled” pathogens which cause the skin to crust over from a combination of ailments like poison ivy, ringworm, and shingles, with the supposed aim of sloughing off the old skin for the new. (The resort is unfortunately invaded by pirates.) In “Caveman Diet,” middle-aged suburbanites trade off their nine-to-fives and daily Internet-surfing in exchange for a sojourn at Pleisto-Scene Island, “the Paleopalooza of fitness adventure tourism,” where they enact their inner “cavepersons,” learning a bit too late about the sordid appetites of their mentor Zugnor.
The Wilds aligns Elliott with a rising generation of writers like Benjamin Percy, Karen Russell, and Jesymyn Ward, for whom optimism about societal progress and the American Dream is a quaint, tired memory from a century which instead bequeathed to us, as Elliott’s closing story asserts, a country littered with “the apocalyptic stench of smoke,” “shattered glass,” and “a mess of orange construction cones.” Although many of her characters find their way into existential dead ends, Elliott nevertheless challenges them, and readers alike, to navigate the perils of this “new” world.
Michael Lee is a Norwegian American writer, performer, and youth worker. He has received grants from the Minnesota state Arts Board, the Metropolitan regional arts council, and Intermedia Arts. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ninth Letter, The Indiana Review, Phoebe, and Rattle, among other journals. His chapbook Refraction (winner of the David Blair Memorial Prize) is forthcoming from Organic Weapon Arts. He lives in Minneapolis, where he works as a youth counselor and arts programming coordinator for teens experiencing homelessness.
CQ: How does external reality interact with internal things such as memory and identity? Hannah Arendt has written of memory that it is “the mind’s power of having present what is irrevocably past and thus absent from the senses, has always been the most plausible paradigmatic example of the mind’s power to make invisibles present. By virtue of this power, the mind seems to be even stronger than reality; it pits its strength against the inherent futility of everything that is subject to change; it collects and re-collects what otherwise would be doomed to ruin and oblivion.” How do the layers of reality and internal discourse present themselves in your poetry? Does this understanding of the presenting of invisibles manifest in your poems?
ML: I love that Arendt quote, and I think a great deal about how my external realities and my internal discourses and memories intersect. What’s interesting to me about remembering is that the etymological opposite is not to forget, but is in fact dismember. Thus, when we remember something we are actually putting it back together. We are in essence fixing something, rebuilding it. Of course, when we fix a broken thing it will be different from its original form. Memory is like this too, but does that make it less real? Arendt seems to think it makes it more so. My poetry is largely about rebuilding my life, re-imagining it, both my past and my present, my contexts, how those affect my emotions, how my emotions affect how I perceive my contexts. Reality and internal discourse are very entangled in my life and my work, I think these intersections manifest in my poems. I try to manifest them, anyway. I once dreamt that a house I lived in was condemned and torn down. It made so much sense to me, I told all the friends I had lived with that “Big Blue got torn down,” they believed me. I believed me. For two years I operated under the fact that place I had made so many memories had been destroyed, the place I was in my darkest depression and addiction, and then the place I got sober, was gone. Two years after learning about our house being torn down I drove through the neighborhood I had not visited since I left, just to see what had been built. The house was still there. I had this moment of wonder and fear. A sense of magic and the surreal. I had been so sure of the house’s demolition, but it had been a dream. What else hadn’t been real? Would it have been real had I never gone back to see that it wasn’t? Was it still true to my life because of how it affected me? I sat staring at the house for ten minutes just questioning what the hell had happened and what it meant. I want to inhabit that space in my poems.
CQ: How does the question of identity tie into this felt expression of memory and the persistence of the past into the present?
ML: I think identity is hugely tied to our pasts. Where we come from and where we’ve been IS our identity. But how we remember where we’ve been also affects that; for instance, I didn’t grow up with much. I’ll never forget asking my father for a candy bar and him telling me, “we just don’t have the money right now”, my mom crying late at night and me intuitively knowing it was the bills, or the fact that almost all of my clothes were hand-me-downs from my cousins, purchased at Goodwill, or sewn by my mother. At the same time, my family had a car, a garage, a computer, a television.
I had a scholarship to a private school where my father taught, and all my friends at school were rich. Or seemed like it. I wonder now how much of my identity of being lower class comes from fact, or comes from comparing myself to the kids I went to school with. Maybe we were always better off than I thought, maybe it was just because my friends were rich and other kids at school made fun of me for being poor that I grew up with the identity of being lower class, and taking pride in that. Maybe we were middle class, maybe we had a few rough patches, but overall were never as bad off as I thought. I’m not sure, but my perceptions and memory of my past have absolutely shaped my identity, even if they might be exaggerated and defined more by the context of my past rather than a quantifiable reality. Had we possessed all the same things and I had gone to a different school, I may have felt rich. I may have been perceived that way, even. Context determines so much of perception and of identity.
CQ: Do you prefer the symbolic over the literal? How do you find a way to mix the two?
ML: At this point in my writing the narrator is almost always me, I’m still working through a lot of personal grief and trauma, and I feel I have to get these stories out/articulated before I feel ready to move fully past my own narration. I wouldn’t say anything is fabricated, but I will be hyperbolic to create a certain effect. For instance, in my poem “Self-Erasure as Applied to My Memory” I write “. . . it was the year / I lived on a train and passed the rusted ship yards. . .”, I didn’t literally live on a train, but for a few years I did spend a great deal of time on trains, busses, planes, cars. I was wandering and felt closer to the road than to anywhere else. I wanted to capture that feeling in that line-I wasn’t necessarily lost, but I had this constant feeling of leaving. I was always leaving somewhere, something or someone. That to me is one of metaphor’s strongest qualities, the economy of language it allows, the meaning that can be packed into a single line. I don’t have to explain anything, and often that leads me to prefer the symbolic over the literal. The symbolic is like a flash of light illuminating a room for a split second. This flash allows us to see what is there, but it’s so quick that when it is gone we wonder if what we saw was real. Then we begin to imagine things that may have been there until we can’t tell the difference. The further we get away from that flash, the stronger it gets in some ways. Memory is like that too, I think. Memory is the flash of light by which our pasts are illuminated. We see what is there, but the further we are from the source, the more we have to wonder if what we saw is the truth. In some ways, I think the symbolic is the truest documentation of memory.
CQ: In the poem “Self-Erasure as Applied to My Memory,” you use the form to convey the message by erasing certain words in the second half of the poem. How did you come up with the idea to do this? How did you decide which words to erase? Which part did you write first: the “erased” part or the complete part?
ML: I had written a poem called “The Law of Halves as Applied to the Blade” about a friend of mine who was stabbed to death. I imagined if the distance of the blade from his body at been measured in halves it would never have reached his body-if you halve a distance between two points you will never reach the destination. In that world, the knife is still approaching him, and will be forever. I was trying to create a series of poems around this idea that explored the idea of vanishing, but never being gone. Of things always in motion, transpiring, but never fully coming to pass. My poem “The Pill” started as the idea of a pill halving itself inside the body, how it never fully leaves you, how addiction affects you forever. It was first a cantos poem measured in milligrams (80m, 40m, 20m, 10m, 5m). I might still write that poem. I still have drafts of it. “The Pill” ended up being a consolidated version of the first and last sections of that piece. My “Self-Erasure as Applied to My Memory” piece was born out of this series, you can see that in how the three sections are numbered 24, 12, 6 to denote age. With the erasure, I initially tried to cut half the words from the first to second sections and then again from the second to the third, however I saw a lot of lines I wanted, but that I couldn’t make with that form so I abandoned the idea. It’s still present in the poem, but the poem no longer adheres to the form, which I believe allowed it to be successful. I began the poem with the complete part and then cut down, which is closest to my process in general. I overwrite in most of my poems. The first section came out as four full pages, one stanza. Truthfully I didn’t know exactly what I was writing when I started, I just started writing one evening and when I was done I looked at the first section, which came out almost in one sitting, and realized what I had, and what I needed to do. I worked on cutting the first section down and then spent the next month or two fine tuning the piece, erasing and tweaking. Each time I got to the last section, I would notice how a line could be better. I would have to then go back and change the previous two sections to allow it, or go back and see if the edit worked in each section. It was fun and challenging process, and when I had it, I knew I had it.
Robin McLean was a lawyer, and then a potter, for 15 years in the woods of Alaska before receiving her MFA at UMass Amherst in Massachusetts. Her first collection, Reptile House, won the BOA Editions Fiction Price in 2013 and will be published by BOA in May 2015. A figure skater first—having learned to skate and walk at the same time—McLean believes that crashing on ice prepared her for writing fiction. She currently teaches at Clark University, and splits her time between Newfound Lake in Bristol, New Hampshire, and a 200-year-old farm in western Massachusetts.
Robin McLean’s “Cold Snap” was selected by Jim Shepard as a grand prize winner—along with Ian Bassingthwaighte’s “When Trains Fall From Space”—in Carolina Quarterly’s “The End is Nigh” writing contest. You can read her story in our most recent issue, 64.2.
AA: Obviously, some time earlier this year, you came across our “End is Nigh” contest. Was this story one you had already written, or did you begin writing it specifically for the contest?
RM: “Cold Snap” was already done when I learned about the contest. I had written the first draft mid-winter in New Hampshire. I was looking out at the snow flurries everyday and missing Alaska where I had lived for 17 years. I was sad. A friend suggested that to cheer myself up, I should write a story about what a “real” winter was like, since I was convinced that all these east coast people did not know the meaning of real cold. I was having trouble letting go of Alaska. Still am. That’s how “Cold Snap” got going. I had never written an end of the world story before and did not plan this to be one. The story just got colder and colder, never warmer.
AA: Yes, and foggier and foggier. The story develops through a sort of intermittent, elusive imagery. Readers get glimpses of the world you’ve created between the fogging and clearing of masks. Was this aesthetic one you set out to accomplish or did it develop as you wrote?
RM: I feel like the biggest and scariest things that happen in life sort of sneak up on us; we sort of see them, sort of don’t see them. When we come to the end of the world, the last people standing might possibly think, “Wow, look at all the clues we had. We might have seen it coming.” I’ve heard someone say that about Easter Island. The people cut down every tree. What did they think at that last one?
Anyway, the fogging and clearing of the imagery in the story was really useful for illustrating that idea: seeing and also not seeing. Also, landscape and place are very important to the story, since the natural world ends up being vastly more powerful than the human world. Perhaps particular language was called for to convey this enormous, non-human realm.
AA: This “non-human realm” feels particularly emphasized each time the story’s protagonist, Lilibeth, calls out “Hello” only to have her voice ricochet back to her, unheard and unanswered. It’s also reflected in her habit of leaving notes that will likely go unread. How do you see language—and communication, generally—functioning in your story?
RM: The story is about isolation, both physical and emotional, so there is good reason for Lilibeth to get no answers to her persistent calls. Generally, I feel like specific language — like the words “cold” or “love” or “hello” — is just an attempt at approximation or translation. Language is useless to Lilibeth in the story. It gets her nowhere, her calls, her books. I pretty much agree that the surface language is impotent, which is a weird thing for a writer to feel. I have three sisters. We say stuff to each other. One of us gets mad at something said. “You burned the rice.” But it’s never the rice. It’s for something underneath the rice, of course, some long ago history, some real pain. In this story, I’m very interested in showing the impotence of the surface of language and also the real power it has underneath. But how we cling to the rice as the subject. Try to make sense of the rice, which will never make sense.
For real communion with another human being, I think language must transmit the feeling. Just like a poem circles around an un-sayable subject, I hoped the language in “Cold Snap” would make the reader feel Lilbeth’s isolation, her failure to connect, to communicate. Also, the pain of her hope to communicate. Her hope is foolish, given the circumstances of the story. That contrast, to me, feels both beautiful and terrible.
Continue reading “the backdrop of the end of the world”: an interview with Robin McLean by Aisha Anwar