Presented here for the first time in English, the cult writer Charles Chahwan—"Lebanon's answer to Charles Bukowski"—tells a tale of rival militiamen euphoric with violence.
Under the gentle afternoon sunlight, Serge’s body appeared limp and more slouched than usual as he rested against the back seat of the shared taxi, a Morris Princess. He was the sole passenger in the service as it made its way down the coastal highway, as if other potential passengers had unconsciously decided to leave him be, perhaps so he could burrow deeper into his solitude. The light streaming in generously through the window descended on top of his broad winter jacket and baggy trousers. That very light shaded a portion of his face and his crooked hand behind the smoke of a half-lit cigarette. His face was covered in deep creases that surrounded his two small, gloomy eyes. He was a young man, not yet thirty, but with the features of an old man. Everything about him—his face, his eyes, his hands, his clothes—seemed worn out, as if whatever was inside him was remote and forgotten long ago. It never occurred to him that the pain he suffered from at night or when he woke up feeling weak was caused by some chronic illness. My body has nothing to do with all that is happening, he would tell himself, the two things are unrelated. The body has no capacity to remember pain. Everything ailing me is rooted within myself. This thought always settled it for him.
Serge bit down on the end of his cigarette and tried to recall what the place he was headed to looked like. What he could summon were scant and hazy details. He fidgeted in his seat, and pulled a large black wallet from his jacket pocket, fishing out a flimsy, cropped photograph. He peered at the photograph for a moment, then took a pair of prescription eyeglasses from his other jacket pocket. He put on the glasses and peered again at the picture like someone gazing and trying to make out a figure far away. In the picture, he could see himself and his friend Francis, scrawny and laughing. They looked like a pair of mummies in the flesh—his friend Francis with his black hair and he with his long wavy hair. They were standing facing the camera with their hands on the balcony railing of Francis's apartment with its view to the harbor. The deep red and blue colors and their smiles re-ignited the spark of a lost simplicity within him, and he could picture once again the same image replicated in other disfigured photographs. He put the picture back in his wallet and peered into the area visible through the front windshield. In the opposite direction, the sun descending below the water created a radiant glimmer that mainly reminded him of the smell of fruit. The taxi turned off the highway and entered the harbor area, continuing its journey toward the shore. He murmured something to the driver to alert him where to let him off. Having lived there for a long time, he knew the area by heart. The taxi stopped at an intersection right next to an old textile factory and he got off. When he stood alone in front of the different roads branching out, he felt a tremendous, incomprehensible sense of warmth. He felt a desire to revisit and reconnect with many places he recognized. This feeling was all he needed before arriving at the house of his friend Francis. He knew full well that all he had to do was to free his emotions and open the door to anything that could put him on a different plane of consciousness. At that moment, what he felt was not that he was reliving old memories but rather as though he were a zombie. He was certain this was the explanation. When he looked out at the small square near Francis’s building, everything he saw appeared to be just as he’d known it. This feeling gave him great reassurance, so he continued moving forward with his head down; there was no need to look, this place was more real inside his head than it was in front of his eyes.
Francis lived on the third floor above the shop of al-Beiruti, the ice cream vendor. Serge had also lived in the same apartment, no. 14, for a long time. He slowly climbed the dirty stairs, stopping now and then in front of the open-air window in the wall facing the staircase to look at the buildings in the near vicinity. Opposite the building there was a small amusement park with its colorful steel rides and a giant elevated Ferris wheel adjacent to a large brick building. He reached the apartment and twice knocked weakly on the door, then looked again to confirm. Yes, this was it—no. 14. He knocked again, this time with more force. When the door suddenly opened, Serge was leaning on the adjoining wall. He gazed straight into Francis’s eyes for more than a minute, without either of them uttering a word.
They were like a pair of pouncing wolves as they embraced. They kept holding each other while shouting each other’s names. When they finally let go of each other, their gazes glowed with tenderness. Francis was the same age as Serge, but his facial features were quite different. He was tall and dark-skinned with pitch-black eyes, and although the rest of his body seemed scrawny, he had prominent, bulging biceps—a young man full of vitality.
At sunset, the two sat down on a couple of straw chairs on the balcony that looked onto the dilapidated swimming pool. They began slowly sipping cups of tea held between their hands, then placing them on the small coffee table between them. They carried on like this for a while. When they had finished their tea, Francis got up and slipped inside. Serge remained on the balcony for quite some time, watching the evening unfold in front of him. When Francis finally came back, he grabbed Serge by the shoulders. Serge wasn’t startled at all, not even bothering to turn around. When it was completely dark, Francis ushered Serge inside, shut the door to the balcony, and they sat inside facing each other. They exchanged words every now and then, but most of the time they grinned broadly each time their eyes met. Later, it began to rain. The rain became unbelievably heavy, to the point that the raindrops obscured most of the balcony’s glass door facing them. It soon became cold and Serge asked Francis to turn on the electric heater. When he did so, Serge took off his shoes and sat on the couch with his legs folded underneath him. Everything was peaceful. The rain did not stop for quite some time and it made strange sounds on the balcony and on the water between the boats docked nearby. When Serge told his friend that he liked these sounds, Francis's response emanated from the kitchen: “They mean nothing to me.” The apartment had no books, just an empty birdcage. Francis appeared at the kitchen door, and then suddenly flung himself onto the cot in the other corner of the living room. Serge looked over at him and saw his face was as calm as could possibly be, just as he noticed a black revolver below Francis’s pillow, and nothing else.
Neither of them felt like sleeping, and the room had become warm, almost hot. Francis started talking about his old car. At some point, Serge got up to turn on the television but then decided against it. Each one was staring uneasily at the room in a different direction when there was a violent knocking at the door. They glanced at each other; then someone called out Francis’s name. Evidently, Francis recognized the voice. He got up slowly, muttering, “What could this guy want at this hour?” He arrived at the door, and when he opened it, he could not see anyone there (nor could Serge from where he was). Then he heard someone’s voice again call out from the end of the hallway. Annoyed, Francis stepped outside. Before he could see anything or react, bullets riddled his body and sent it flying all over the place as if it were dancing. His body did not land in front of the door; the bullets were like tremendous punches driving it farther and farther away.
Serge watched it all unfold but could not seem to hear anything. Then he suddenly started hearing everything and got as close to the door as he possibly could. The bullets coming out of the barrel of the machine gun flashed like lightning, emitting a thunderous, painful din. The gunshots ceased. He heard men jostling as they all bounded down the stairs. He could also hear them cursing filthily. He took a deep breath and picked up the revolver—the first time he’d ever held one in his hand. He felt certain he was breathing not air but hatred.
The rain outside had stopped. Serge threw on his loose-fitting overcoat and grabbed the revolver from the bed. The overcoat flapped from side to side as he charged into the hallway. With the revolver in his hand, he looked as if he’d come straight off the cover of an old crime novel. He stopped and knelt beside Francis, who was no longer alive. Serge began stroking his forehead, begging him to say something, to at least wake up. Francis’s eyes were wide open but he did not wake up, nor did he speak. Serge picked him up and held him close to his chest. He held him close to his beating heart, then pressed his face to his own and wept profusely. Then he heard the voices of the same men in the street down below. They were yelling like wild animals. He got up and ran down the staircase to a window on the landing. He took a look at the revolver in his hand, then looked at them below. They hovered around their dark-colored military jeep and appeared exactly like cold-blooded killers. The square around them was damp and glistening from the rain. It did not feel right to him, but he knew hesitating was impossible. He fired a round of shots in the killers’ direction and watched as some of them dropped to the pavement. He could hear their bodies hit the damp ground with a thud. The others returned fire, the bullets whizzing past him. When his revolver had run out of bullets, he retreated. The shots fired near the window continued unabated. In his dazed view, the brick houses across the street seemed crooked. That’s how they should be, he thought. He tossed away the revolver and knelt over Francis’s body to kiss him one last time. He could hear them coming up the stairs, screaming with a terrifying savagery. It seemed there was nowhere to escape but the roof. He started to run toward the stairs, then scurried up them until he reached the roof. The rain had begun again. He felt so frail that his body felt like a flimsy sheet of paper.
When the wind passed through his hair, he could feel it had grown slightly longer, as it was brushing against his shoulders. He stopped for a moment to look at the houses, then turned to look at the sea. He could feel both looking back at him, as if they were meant to do so. Then he suddenly found himself before the sloped brick roof of the neighboring building. Down below, he heard them again firing their guns and screaming like wild animals. Serge realized he was barefoot. It was not going to be possible for him to go back for his shoes. He hurried to the building ledge and in a single move jumped to the sloped roof, sprawling across the brick surface as he landed. When he sensed that he was all right and not in danger of falling, he started to carefully crawl along the edge of the sloped brick roof until he reached the iron ladder that led to the courtyard of the house below. He descended the ladder toward the courtyard and jumped over the fence to the neighboring courtyard. He climbed the ladder up to the neighboring house’s roof and then began jumping from one roof to the next. He looked like a white butterfly in the night flitting above a river of blood. When he reached the roof of the last building on the block, he went down its ladder into the building’s courtyard. While standing there, he could make out the sound of the heavy gunfire, which penetrated deep inside his ears with every shot. At that moment, the rainfall became heavier. His overcoat became wet and the moisture seeped through, soaking his body and chilling him to the bone.
Serge spotted a door on the balcony of one of the higher floors. He had no choice but to climb up to it on the building’s ladder. He climbed over the edge, then stepped closer and grabbed the doorknob. It was unlocked. He pushed the door open and went inside. Dripping wet, he continued until he found himself inside a bedroom. In front of him stood a young woman staring at him in the darkness.
“I beg you,” he said, then said in a hushed voice. “They’re going to kill me.”
There wasn’t another sound in that cold room high above the ground. There was complete silence as they stood facing each other in that cold room high above the street. The woman drew closer and gently caressed his face. “Don’t be afraid,” she reassured him.
He stood there as she locked the door. He said he could not see her well. Then, as his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he was able to discern her a little better. He repeated that he was still scared. Only when she switched on the dim lamp near her bed could he properly see her face and body. She was remarkably attractive. She drew near again and ran her fingers through his hair as she gazed into his eyes. “You have a beautiful face,” she murmured.
“You need to take your clothes off,” she continued. “Come here and sit on this chair. I’ll help you.” Serge went and sat down. Her bed seemed comfortable. She helped him remove his clothing, and when he was undressed, she brought a large towel from her wooden closet and wrapped it around his torso. “You’re so skinny,” she remarked as she tightened the towel around him, “but you have a pretty face.” Then she dried his long hair. The weak lightbulb gave off a strange purple light in the dimly lit room, which reflected eerily off her bedsheets.
When she was finished, she took Serge by the arm and led him, still wrapped up in the towel, to her bed. There, she removed the towel and covered him with a warm blanket. The sweet scent of the bedsheets penetrated deeply into his nostrils. His eyes followed her as she walked to the other side of the bed and slipped beneath the sheets until their bodies were touching. She began to run her hands all over his body, which was still cold. When he could feel her warm breath right on his chest, Serge closed his eyes.
© Charles Chahwan. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Suneela Mubayi. All rights reserved.
Religious life in China has been the subject of much speculation, misunderstanding, and projection by the West. In the present day, much of what we receive is filtered either through news stories about the officially atheist state or through (usually older) translations of Tang Dynasty poets such as Han Shan, who have come to be known as free-thinking Chan masters wandering through the mountains. Their sound is familiar to us from the Beat Generation of poets, who gave them a particular cadence, which we now associate with the totality of “Chinese poetry”:
Spring water in the green creek is clear
Moonlight on Cold Mountain is white
Silent knowledge—the spirit is enlightened of itself
Contemplate the void: this world exceeds stillness.
(Han Shan, trans. Gary Snyder)
Other poets who sometimes write in this vein, like Li Bai and Wang Wei, have come to make up the bulk of the limited number of Chinese poets to be known in the West. This is in part because the poetry is often wonderful, and there is much to appreciate in it. But this is also because there have been lamentably few Chinese poets throughout history translated into Western languages, a problem that we still face today. This small sample size gives a limited and misleading picture of religion in China, which is in fact highly varied and complex. Not only Chan Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, and Daoism, but also Protestant Christianity, Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Mongolian shamanism, Sufi-related mysticism, and countless local spiritual traditions have survived despite every attempt to suppress them at some point throughout history, including the period from the Communist revolution up to the present day.
Yet according to China-watcher Ian Johnson, there are somewhere around sixty million practicing Christians in China today, along with several hundred million members of Buddhist and Daoist religious organizations. Although official churches come under constant scrutiny, surveillance, and sometimes outright destruction, house churches and bible study groups abound. Though the historical temples and monasteries located on the famous Daoist and Buddhist mountains are kept under strict government control, and now serve mainly tourists rather than genuine believers, there are many other smaller temples and local teachers and monks who serve as religious guides and who keep their particular faiths alive. In western China, where forms of Islam and Tibetan Buddhism are concentrated, religious activity is viewed with suspicion and is harshly constrained. Any activity that can be claimed to fall under the rubric of “extremism” is suppressed, at great human cost.
Still, religious life continues in China under many guises. Even innocuous morning exercises in the park may be forms of Daoist taiji or the internal energetic work of qigong. All a practitioner of Chan Buddhism needs is a place to sit. Calligraphy and other art forms can be used as different kinds of traditional Buddhist meditative practices. Chinese translations of the bible are easy to get hold of, even just to read on one’s own. Religious and spiritual activities persist, both in public and in the private sphere.
Within this larger sociopolitical context, Chinese poets today utilize many different strategies to write, directly or obliquely, about their religious and spiritual lives. Many poets avoid specific references to religion, and those who do write on religious themes are often careful to couch it in unthreatening language or to bury references within subtexts. The poets presented here are among those who write explicitly on religious themes, sometimes in ways that directly challenge the state’s desired hegemonic control over religion.
Among a handful of poets writing forcefully and overtly about Christian themes, Li Hao is steeped in religious literature and Biblical texts, often referencing them in his work. He must toe a line as a younger poet living in Beijing and working for an official literary publication, careful to keep his verse free of material that might be considered proselytizing. Nevertheless, his first published collection, The Tempest, was banned and pulled from shelves not long after its publication.
Also living in Beijing, but kept under constant state surveillance as an outspoken Tibetan poet, Tsering Woeser writes about a world that has nearly been lost. Along with religious themes, her poems address the tremendous cultural destruction that has been inflicted upon Tibet, often in the name of “progress” or “economic development.” Her sensitivity to ecology, flora, fauna, natural monuments, and religious monuments both macro and micro are captured beautifully by her translator Ian Boyden, who has engaged in interactive translation and conversation with Woeser for many years.
Xi Wa, although ethnically Han, was born in Xinjiang, a far western province that borders Tibet and is perhaps most closely akin to Tibet in its situation vis-à-vis the central government. She writes on many themes, including music, the natural world, and female independence, but in this selection from a longer work, she explores her personal Tibetan Buddhist path. Wa has immersed herself in Buddhist texts for many years, and even in her less unambiguously religious work, Buddhist theology underpins or frames many of her poems. Her translator here, Chloe Garcia Roberts, brings her considerable experience from translating the esoteric work of the Tang poet Li Shangyin to bear with wonderful affect.
Darren Byler, who has done tremendous work to bring the plight of Uyghurs in Xinjiang to the attention of the outside world, and Joshua Freeman, a highly accomplished literary translator from Uyghur into English, bring us the work of Tahir Hamut, a Muslim Uyghur poet living in exile in Washington, DC. In his poetry, Hamut gives voice not only to his own religious experience, but also to a people who cannot at the moment speak openly for themselves. He writes from a perspective that may soon be lost to the world, as the place in which he grew is rapidly disappearing.
These poems are in no way representative of the breadth and depth of religious poetry being written in Chinese, both in China and in the Chinese diaspora. The collection is instead a small sampling of the riches to be found within a complex, fraught, and ever-changing literary landscape. Mindful of their connections to the past and to the unplumbable depths of the literary tradition that they have inherited, these poets traverse new ground, cogently and powerfully expressing their contemporary condition. It is high time that the Chinese poetry available in English-language translation better reflect the linguistic and expressive innovations of Chinese poets writing today.
© 2019 by Eleanor Goodman. All rights reserved.
In this poem by Tahir Hamut, a woman's wait for a phone call turns into a series of reminiscences—or are they figments of the imagination?
Listen to Tahir Hamut read "Phone Call" in the original Uyghur.
A phone call makes the heart tremble
The vexing wind swoops
like an ancient Indian dance
This was a day passed
inside a whirlwind
A phone call from the last century
connects to a simple “Hello?”
An intermezzo from the dusky elm’s trunk
fans the spirit lamp into a bonfire
while on a mattress
amidst an armful of hair
a beautiful woman tosses and turns
In her mind she kisses the voice
In her mind she sees the daybreak
The man on the phone
with his flair for invention
of an army of ghosts
A phone call makes the heart tremble
A fistful of white wool cast on the fire
She intends to see the dance
Darning her socks
she intends to await her call forever
And the witch cat of legend
jangles a ring of keys
October 1993, Beijing
"ئىلى دەرياسى" © Tahir Hamut. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Joshua L. Freeman. All rights reserved.
It was one of those double-edged moments when you catch a glimpse of yourself as others see you. Sitting in a crammed Trinity College bar, fifteen years ago now, following a seminar on Branwen ferch Llŷr, a friend was asking about the difference between contemporary and Middle Welsh, how much of a leap was required for me to read this iconic medieval text. As I considered, a voice cut in from the table next to us: “Welsh?” I knew his face but not his name. I’d seen him around College: an economist, I think. “It’s all medieval, isn’t it?”
As innocuous a comment as this might seem, it—along with countless incidents like it—has come in my mind to represent the narrow silos where Welsh-language culture is categorized away in the collective imagination. If known at all, it is often through a gauze where Wales remains druidic, heroic, romantic. Othered. From here there may well be a jump to a Thomas or two—Dylan, R. S.—but more often than not they appear as lonely figures, separate from the broader, national, crucially bilingual culture of Wales through which they wrote. “Despite our speech,” as R. S. wrote in his 1958 poem “Border Blues,” “we are not English.”
The relative invisibility of the contemporary Welsh-language scene can feel incongruous to its core readership, which enjoys a literature of caliber, depth, and ever-increasing diversity. There is no doubt that it is a tightly-knit community of readers, nor that publishing and marketing practices for an audience of half a million or so Welsh speakers operate along different lines from other mass markets: the spaces where Welsh-literature happens are, to an extent, different. The annual National Eisteddfod in the first week of August, the largest cultural festival of its kind in Europe, remains the key date in the publishing calendar and the winners of its numerous literary awards highly celebrated. And if the Eisteddfod is the establishment, the custodian, there is also a proliferation of local festivals and live literature nights, many of which consciously evolve the centuries-old live poetry tradition of Wales for a younger, contemporary audience. We have literary fiction, popular novels, a zine culture: publications which, by and large, continue to be sold at smaller independent bookshops or cultural centers. The young editorial team at Y Stamp magazine are leading a new charge in experimentation and self-publishing. O’r Pedwar Gwynt, our foremost literary magazine, is defiantly European and internationalist in its outlook as it nurtures a uniquely Welsh editorial stance. For a culture so often understood in terms of its fragility—and rightly so in many regards—more than ever there is much to celebrate.
Literary translation remains crucial to ensuring broader access to Welsh-language writing, but so too do other and, in some senses, profounder acts of cultural reconciliation. For a small nation we are millstoned by many internal borders, the residue of a population which for so long was not equipped with its own unified history and culture. There is a charged interplay of literary and nonliterary Welsh, of standardized language and regional difference, which can render even fluent speakers reluctant readers. Increased access to Welsh-language education, both in schools and communities, is absolutely central in this regard. There is the perceived divide between the Welsh-language and English-language literatures of Wales, which since the publication of Caradoc Evans’s My People in 1915 have run along parallel, if not oppositional, lines. A subtle shift marks a significant difference between that which is Cymraeg—of the Welsh-language—and that what is Cymreig—of Wales. Increasingly as a community of writers and readers we are operating on much more cross-cultural terms, or as the scholar M. Wynn Thomas puts it, “across the cultural divide that has been both the making and the undoing of modern Wales.”
For me, it was back in that College bar, a young student thrust into the position of an apologist, that a slow process of reconciliation began. While it had been easier for me to project outward my own desired image of Welsh-language culture and heritage, the challenge as I came to understand it was fully to engage with the productive complexities of the contemporary scene. I gravitated toward the cultural touchstones which I simultaneously longed to champion and to challenge. And so I would have traced for you Welsh literature’s roots back to the sixth century. I would have opened that red hardback of Branwen in my hand and explained its position in Pedair Cainc y Mabinogi (The Four Branches of the Mabinogi), a literary marvel, the earliest prose stories of Britain. Through the work of some of its finest artists—from Gwerfyl Mechain to Dafydd ap Gwilym to Dic Jones—I would have plunged into the intricacies of cynghanedd, an ancient system of assonance and internal rhyme which remains at the heart of much Welsh-language poetry today. But I don’t know if I would have mentioned a single contemporary novel. The work of the writers on my bedside table—several of whom are among the authors presented here—would not have tripped so easily from my tongue. And the English-language literature of Wales? That would have felt like a different conversation altogether, not necessarily mine to have.
The urgency of this process of reconciliation is compounded by the precariousness of Wales’s current political standing. Culturally we are at a crossroads, and reflected in the finest of contemporary Welsh-language literature is a process (a struggle) of resolving ourselves to the particularities of our own nature. As Jan Morris wrote in her foreword to Wales: Epic Views of a Small Country (1984):
It is a small country, in many ways the archetype of a small country, but its smallness is not petty: on the contrary it is profound, and if its frontiers were ever to be extended, or its nature somehow eased, its personality would lose stature, not gain it.
Much of the broader value of Welsh-language literature derives precisely from the dense, complex, cultural layering in which it is forged, in this small patch of earth on the western fringe of Europe. If the topic of Wales, of Welshness, occupies a central place in the national canon, this should not be mistaken for parochialism or protectionism. It is a feature of a literature which, often through the bludgeonings of circumstance, has had to deeply consider the politics and poetics of place, of language and memory, of incorporating diversity into a fight for survival. In a world reimagining its cultural and political axes, Welsh-language literature gives voice to an experience more necessary and valuable now than ever. Instigating a meaningful conversation with ourselves does not limit our relevance. Rather, limitation lies in that gauzy, majoritized imagination which reduces a minority culture into a lesser one, a static part of a purportedly greater whole. Contemporary Welsh writing cannot be read in those terms. It is a national literature (re)defining its own story as it writes.
Contemporary writing began for me in the 1990s, as I came of age alongside a generation of writers who each in their own way challenged and recharged the torpor of Welsh writing at the time. The critical response to Robin Llywelyn’s debut Seren Wen ar Gefndir Gwyn (A White Star on a White Background) captured an important cultural moment in this regard. This highly original novel, interpreted by some as a critique of neo-imperialism, was hailed a masterpiece by the judges of the 1992 National Eisteddfod, who awarded Llywelyn that year’s Prose Medal. Its publication heralded an equally enthusiastic counterresponse in what ultimately became a debate centered on the nature of Welsh readership. Championing this work was seen by some as an act of elitism, flowing counter to the development of the popular Welsh-language readership, which had been largely nurtured on social realism. To my teenage mind as it was then, Seren Wen was among the books that taught me that my culture was confident enough not to seek to please. Mihangel Morgan’s work also belongs in this category, particularly his early novels Dirgel Ddyn (Mysterious Man) and Dan Gadarn Goncrit (Under Solid Concrete) and the short story collection Saith Pechod Marwol (Seven Deadly Sins). Morgan’s queer, dark, funny writing continues today to confront the absurd banalities of everyday life, and to subvert with cutting affection the preciousness often associated with Welsh cultural life. The figurative and psychological landscapes these authors traverse—be they Seren Wen’s Gwlad Alltud (Land of Exile) or Dirgel Ddyn’s Welsh for Adults evening class—imbue the familiar with a sense of the uncanny, in a manner that is usefully unnerving for a tightly-knit readership.
It would be satisfying to present a narrative of the 1990s as a decade which began with this literary awakening and culminated in an act of devolved social democracy, with the founding of the National Assembly of Wales, Y Senedd, in 1999. There is of course no such neatness of resolution. With this degree of self-determination came even greater scrutiny of the question of Welsh identity, or, more correctly, identities. The generation of authors featured here have come to literary maturity in a postevolution age, the cultural confidence and frustrations of which are equally reflected in their work. The relationship between politics and Welsh-language writing has always been close, particularly so with socialist and nationalist movements. Many of the best and most popular writers of the twentieth century—Kate Roberts, known as Brenhines ein Llên (Queen of our Literature), Saunders Lewis, Islwyn Ffowc Elis—were central figures in the establishment and early development of Plaid Cymru, the Party of Wales. Lewis’s iconic 1962 BBC radio lecture, Tynged yr Iaith (The Fate of the Language), provided an impetus not only for the protest movements of the 1960s and '70s but also for the renewed flourishing of Welsh language publishing and cultural production in film, television, and music.
Nid dim llai na chwyldroad yw adfer yr iaith Gymraeg yng Nghymru. Trwy ddulliau chwyldro yn unig y mae llwyddo.
It will take nothing less than a revolution to restore the Welsh language in Wales. Success is only possible through revolutionary methods.
The late Gerallt Lloyd Owen’s Cerddi’r Cywilydd (Poems of our Shame), a strident response to Charles Windsor’s inauguration as Prince of Wales in 1969, represents a pinnacle of this tradition. (Ask a Welsh literature student of my generation and they’ll recite to you much of this collection by heart.) But the forcefulness of this writing is less of a defining characteristic than the hard-won awareness which lies behind it, that of the power dynamics deeply embedded in the use of, and suppression of, language and culture. There is not an author writing in Welsh today who will not be conscious of their personal-as-political agency in this regard, however they choose to engage with it. This is far from a new phenomenon: the enduring popularity of figures such as the poet and essayist T. H. Parry-Williams owes a great deal to the honesty of their push-and-pull portrayal of this cultural responsibility. As he signs off his iconic poem “Hon” (“This One”): Duw a’m gwaredo, ni allaf ddianc rhag hon: “God help me, I cannot escape this one.”
The exploration of this equivocal middle ground is also a feature of the English-language literature of Wales, and especially so for those writers who choose to work in both languages. As Gwyneth Lewis writes in her poem "What’s in a Name?" from the 2003 collection Keeping Mum:
Today the wagtail finally forgot
that I once called it sigl-di-gwt. […]
Lleian wen is not the same as 'smew'
because it's another point of view,
Much of our best writing inhabits such nuances and slippages: our tradition of praise and religious writing equally met by the literature of doubts and misrememberings which emerges in the negotiation of the Welsh experience.
The social drive of Kate Roberts’s work, both as a novelist and short story writer, is expressed not in grand gesture but in the subtlety of her psychological observations, focused on characters or communities otherwise ignored: women and children; the impoverished workers of industrial north Wales; those living with mental illness. More recently, the novelist, children’s author, and activist Angharad Tomos and the poets Menna Elfyn and Nesta Wyn Jones are notable for their exploration from a feminist perspective of the intersection of personal and political in the Welsh experience. The publishing house Honno, the longest-standing independent women’s press in the UK, continues to do vital work in presenting contemporary and lost classics of Welsh women’s writing, in both our languages. The founding of the poetry collective Cywion Cranogwen, the 2018 publication of the anthology Codi Llais, and the pop-culture magazine Codi Pais all speak of a confident, progressive new generation of women writers in Wales.
In Imagined Communities (1983) Benedict Anderson held the novel form to be the best “technical means for ‘re-presenting’ the kind of imagined community that is the nation.” Increasingly in Welsh-language writing form and genre themselves are challenged, boundaries blurred so as better to reimagine a space for itself. The writers presented here are best known by and large for their prose, but they are also recognized as dramatists and scriptwriters, singer/songwriters, poets and podcasters: the collective impact of their creative energy is felt across literary and cultural forms.
The recent rise in popularity of Celtic Noir has not only presented Welsh culture to new international audiences, but created a space within the culture where different forms and communities speak to one another. The dark worlds depicted in television series such as Y Gwyll (Hinterland) or Craith (Hidden) draw on the same sources as the work of authors such as Caryl Lewis and Llwyd Owen, both featured here. While these writers initially seem to inhabit wildly different worlds, they bear equal witness to fundamental shifts in the make-up of contemporary Wales. Owen’s exploration of Cardiff’s criminal and psychological underbelly inversely speaks to the new power structures and political classes of Wales’s young democracy and lays bare what is often seen as the cozy hypocrisy of middle-class suburban Wales. The dystopia presented here, “after the vote,” represents a natural progression from his established dark worlds.
The changing psychological and linguistic landscapes of rural Wales form the basis of Lewis’s work, its communities emptied of the increasingly urbanized Welsh-speaking population. The exquisite, near timeless vocabulary with which she evokes the natural world runs counter to the time-and-duty-bound existence of the characters who inhabit her landscapes. In theme and tenor, she shares much with Cynan Jones’s lyrical prose. Something of the darkness of survivor literature runs through the work, though there often remains an element of quiet celebration and resistance. As Christopher Meredith’s Welsh-speaking character Wil responds to a compliment on the quality of his English in the 2012 novel The Book of Idiots: “Thanks […] Call me Caliban.”
The expansion of Manon Steffan Ros and Fflur Dafydd’s body of work toward science fiction (gwyddonias) speaks of this increasing drive in Welsh culture towards brave new worlds. The sparse postapocalyptic landscape of Ros’s profoundly moving Llyfr Glas Nebo (The Blue Book of Nebo), winner of the 2019 Wales Book of the Year, is simultaneously informed by her deep sensitivity to the relationships between people, place, and home. The universalizing strength of her writing for young adults is never more profoundly felt than here. A siege on the National Library of Wales in Fflur Dafydd’s 2009 thriller Y Llyfrgell (The Library) sets the scene for an exploration of collective memory and cultural ownership. Adapted into the film Y Llyfrgell (The Library Suicides) (Euros Lyn, 2016), there lies in its deliberately-within-touching-distance 2020 setting an implicit challenge to the futures we choose to build for ourselves through the readings of our own past.
It is also in the challenges of inherited memory that much of Llŷr Gwyn Lewis’s work is located. His prose debut, Rhyw Flodau Rhyfel (Some Flowers of War), deliberately injects personal experience into writing which grapples with the lines between fact, fiction and memory, the real and the unreal. His short-story collection Fabula, an extract of which is featured here, continues in this vein and, to adapt a line from his own poem “Rhyddid” (Freedom), seems to “take pleasure/ in the ambiguity of its wavelengths.” In some ways occupying similar ground to Patrick McGuinness, whose Other People’s Countries: A Journey into Memory won the 2015 Wales Book of the Year, Lewis’s work has the additional charge of a young person’s, a new generation’s, need not only to seek a place in the world, but to form of the world’s disintegrating framework a new reality.
In 2016, Parthian Books published what came to be Alys Conran’s award-winning debut novel, Pidgeon, side by side with a specially commissioned Welsh translation of the same work, Pijin. A novel of childhood, loss of innocence, loss of language, it is a book in which the psychological relationship between English and Welsh resonates at its emotional core. It resonated also with a broad readership within and beyond Wales, with many readers buying a copy in both languages. To my mind, contemporary Wales is one of the few places in the world where such a bold, culturally significant act of simultaneous publication could take place: it speaks of a particular confluence of cultures at a significant moment in its history. Welsh literature does not by any means present a silver bullet when it comes to the assimilation and acceptance of cultural diversity: many authors, from Tony Bianchi to Kate Bosse-Griffiths to Charlotte Williams, attest to the complexities of the Welsh experience in this regard. But they remain fruitful complexities through which to inform a broader conversation. To quote M. Wynn Thomas once more, engaging with the “significant differences, creative hostilities, silent connections and hidden attachments” of Welsh literature is enabling us further to develop a diverse, inclusive literature that remains very much our own.
© 2019 by Casi Dylan. All rights reserved.
This poem by Tahir Hamut reflects on Sama, a type of rhythmic dance punctuated by unified shouting while dancing in a circular pattern. Its roots are in pre-Islamic Zoroastrian fire dances, but over the centuries it became an element of Sufi ritual practice. Up until 2014 it was an integral part of Uyghur festival celebrations.
Listen to Tahir Hamut read "A Night Sama" in the original Uyghur.
Sixteen writhing white lines,
Each looks different from the next.
Glimmering gracefully in the howling wind,
Unlit under the moonlight.
They sank into a pitch black recess,
Continuing their ceaseless writhing spin.
Now I count fifteen of them, one has been lost,
Their wailing won’t let me sleep, won’t let me sleep . . .
October 1991, Beijing
"تۈندىكى ساما" © Tahir Hamut. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Darren Byler and Dilmurat Mutellip. All rights reserved.
In this epistolary short story, a Welsh missionary goes to Japan but ends up converting to a new way of life.
Listen to Llŷr Gwyn Lewis read "Dolores Morgan's Letters from the Far East" in the original Welsh
Letters in the hand of Dolores Morgan, a missionary for the Union of Welsh Baptists, to her friend Leila Farr Bevan. The Union was a new body that sent missionaries to Japan soon after the country changed its long-standing policy of isolation and opened its ports to foreign shipping for the first time. It seems that this was their first missionary endeavor, and that they chose to proselytize in a different sphere from the Calvinistic Methodists, whose sights were mainly set on Africa. The responses to these letters (if there were any) are apparently not extant.
20 April 1868
To my dearest friend, Leila Farr Bevan,
Greetings and blessings upon you from the furthest reaches of the world, where I now find myself residing. I have been here in Kyoto for several days. I was welcomed here when I disembarked, feeling exhausted after the three-month voyage, by some Christian friends who have been here for some time preparing the way, and who somehow succeeded in obtaining a place for me to stay, something which they themselves had not had when they arrived in this country, in the palace of the emperor himself. To this day I do not know how they achieved this, nor what I have done to deserve such a privilege, unless the tireless work of the others has begun to bear fruit, and the Holy Ghost is already at work among the Japanese people. It is likely that there is a connection with the recent change of heart regarding foreign affairs, and the emperor’s desire for his people to be more welcoming of strangers. Therefore, after I had rested a while in the friends’ accommodation, I was welcomed to the palace of the emperor himself, and to my magnificent room, which has wooden walls, paper screens with the most intricate decoration, low tables, and a bed. There are no chairs here, and I will need to remember to order some, for I have not yet become habituated to the custom of sitting on the floor, which is common among the Japanese, even among those of the highest social rank. However, I approve of their habit of divesting themselves of their shoes whenever they enter a building.
I imagine that you have heard a great deal about this extraordinary land recently, since its inhabitants have risen up in rebellion against the government. I myself had heard rumours of these troubles during the voyage, and I was therefore quite fearful and full of dread when I reached the end of my journey a few days ago. And yet I gave heartfelt thanks to the Almighty for seeing fit to bring me here at such a fateful juncture, and I begged Him earnestly to inspire me to make the most of the fragile political situation facing the Shogun at present in order to liberate this land once and for all of its barbaric beliefs, known respectively as Shinto and Buddhism.
Soon after I arrived I came to understand that some noblemen of the empire, individuals named Satsuma, Choisu, and Tosa, respectively the commander of the army, the governor, and prime minister of the country, had in the past few months led a rebellion against the Shogun, as a result of their desire to see real power returned to the Mikado, the Emperor. Until recently, I had thought that the sovereign authority in Japan was shared between two different persons—one spiritual and the other pertaining to the state. However, the distinction made between spiritual and state power is mere fiddle-faddle. The only difference is that the Mikado is the main fount of power, while the Shogun has been the one who, for decades, has put that power into practice. Despite that, the Mikado can, if he chooses, relieve the Shogun of his duties. Thus, in effect, the Shogun governed but the Mikado, or the emperor, was the real constitutional ruler.
It appears now as if the emperor, upon whose mercy I am dependent here in the ancient city of Kyoto, will in due course reclaim the power that had been stripped from him, to all intents and purposes, some centuries ago. A number of the Shogun’s palaces have already been burnt down in the past few months, and I am told that it is simply a question of time before he is forced once more to go on bended knee before the emperor and to give up his dominion over the land. At present, the true strength of the country—or rather this group of islands, over six thousand in total—lies, and has lain for some decades, actually, in Edo, a vast city east of here which makes even London seem like an insignificant settlement on the edge of the empire, rather than the capita mundi. The emperor’s power and influence over the past few decades have been negligible, and he has not been afforded the same respect and admiration as enjoyed by our own dear queen.
But all this is about to change. There was a time—and not so long ago either—when it was dangerous for a man of another nation to set foot in Japan and even for his ship to drop anchor in one of her ports. The Mikado must have changed his mind on this matter recently and must have come to feel more of a rapport with foreigners just as he came increasingly to resent the Shogun. I am dwelling with the emperor in Kyoto, and my aim and intention is, therefore, with Christ as my guide and protector, to take advantage of my privileged status to ensure that the true faith, Christianity, will be in the vanguard when the emperor takes back his birthright.
Forgive me, my friend, for that contextual preamble, which was necessary for you to be able to understand my situation. Indeed, I derived no small pleasure in putting everything into words in that way, for it has clarified it all in my own mind as well. It has also served sufficiently to convey to you the magnitude of the perilous task that lies ahead of me, for the country is full of fear, terror, and barbarism on all sides. Bloodthirsty heathens lie in wait everywhere and were it not for the will of Christ I would not wish to tarry here a second longer but rather would return home to you. One example will suffice to convey to you the strangeness of these people and the way in which quotidian life is vexatiously different. I am referring to the tea, which the Japanese drink endlessly. We British are thought of as inveterate tea-drinkers, but here in Japan the people assign a central and reverential place to this beverage in rites and customs, except that they drink a green, slimy tea which in my view is by no means pleasant.
In my first days in the palace, when I was still quite weary, Chihiro, a member of the emperor’s retinue, offered to show me some of the sites of the city. Even though I was hardly eager in spirit, for the only thing I wished to do was to lock myself within the palace walls, I accepted her offer. I expressed in the meager Japanese I was able to muster before coming here that I would like to visit a temple, in order to learn more about the strange and terrible religions practised here. I mentioned the only temple I could remember, having read about it in the single book it had been possible to find about the country and which I have by my side now as I write, namely A Brief and Concise Introduction to the Customs, Habits and Practices of the Japanese People, Being Also a Useful and Moral Guide to their Temples and Places of Worship by Albert F. Thrapp. I remembered having read in this book of a magnificent temple, made of fine gold, which glittered on an island in a lake on the edge of the city. I therefore expressed my desire to visit the Ginkaku-ji.
After a good deal of walking and wandering and climbing, we eventually came within sight of a temple on the brow of a hill, with a magnificent garden made of gravel raked in a pattern suggestive of an undulating sea. The effect of this was to quieten the mind and spirit of the visitor. When we gazed beyond this stony sea, however, I was disappointed to see that the temple appeared as gray as the gravel at my feet. Through broken English, even more broken Japanese, a Welsh word here and there, and an excessive amount of hand gestures, I succeeded in discovering from my friend that I should have enquired about the Kinkaku-ji, rather than the Ginkaku-ji, and the alarm and disappointment on her face changed to laughter and contentment. Although I was greatly disappointed, I too could not but laugh with her, and in so doing I realised that this was the first time a veritable smile had appeared on my face since I set foot in this country. It would be wrong to give credence for a moment to the lunacy and barbarism of the Shinto religion or to the devotees of the philosophy known as “Zen,” but it is true to say that I experienced there some of the mental and spiritual calm that comes from spending an hour near that stony sea. To this day, however, I have yet to visit the temple of gold.
Leila, my soul and my companion, I have held forth for far too long, and so here I will bring my letter to a close. There is much more that I wish to describe to you, but it will have to wait for the time being. All that remains to do is for me to express my intense longing for you and for dear little Wales, and to say that I hope one day to return to her maternal lap. Thus I conclude this stream of thoughts for the moment, and I bid you farewell,
Yours, as always,
1 May 1868
My dearest Leila,
I enclose here the following, namely the substance of a speech lately addressed to the government by a Japanese priest:—
The disgraceful religion of Jesus, Lord of Heaven, is an evil which threatens the empire. There are fools who are drawn to that doctrine, and such fools are numerous among our people. Moreover, men from foreign lands are making efforts to spread the word of this doctrine. We are much vexed by this, and we desire that rebuttals be published continually against the doctrine. We are those humble ones who, devoted to the Buddhism which has made Japan great, are ready to live and die for the empire.
This is the type of wickedness, dear friend, in which the country I currently reside in wallows, and I myself am readier than ever to expunge it from the land. I must apologise for sending word to you again so soon after my last missive. However, as you no doubt realised, at the close of my previous tidings, I still have much to convey to you. I urge you to let me know when that first letter has reached the end of its journey, and this second one in its wake. The address is included at the head of the missive, and I am confident that any communication from you will reach its destination in safety.
I long to tell you of my experiences in this extraordinary country. I feel that I am truly on the other side of the world. For the first time in my life—I am accounted to be tall! All here bow to one another and particularly to me, since I am such an utterly strange person to the inhabitants of this land. And although, as I am all too well aware, in my homeland it is May Day—oh, how the passing of the seasons, and the common rituals of life appear to me more clearly, more painfully, and more unattainably here, Lily!—the rites and celebrations here are of quite a different nature: primarily, the tea ceremonies. Chihiro and I attended one of these rituals, and there, on my haunches, with the cup held in both my hands as I passed it on, always to the left, I gained my first taste of the odd but strangely pleasant infusion.
Several days ago I went to visit the Kiyomizu-dera, a grand temple on a hilltop on the edge of the city. Here there is an aura, and a heady, unique perfume, quite different from what I am accustomed to at home in the Land of Song. To my sense of smell it seemed like a mixture of tea leaves, incense, water, and the wood used to build Japanese dwellings, and all of it as it were slowly decomposing. Indeed, these last two elements, wood and water, are highly prominent in Kiyomizu-dera. It is a structure of considerable size which seems as if it were nesting on the hill’s side, and beneath it is a framework like a scaffold or platform which serves as a foundation for the whole. I was informed that not a single nail was used in the whole edifice. The temple takes its name from the waterfall that flows in a raging torrent to the ravine below: the meaning of Kiyomizu is clear or pure water. This torrent is situated beneath the main hall, where the water cascades in channels to a small lake, and where the water can be collected and drunk. For me, a Baptist as you well know, this was appealing and comforting, I must confess, and made me begin to wonder how much difference there actually is between the religions of the world. The paganism of the Japanese seems to imitate or echo some of the rites associated with Christ himself, and whether that is something that should horrify me or not, I do not know. This much I do know: on that hill I was spellbound by the waters.
To my eyes and on the surface it appears that Shinto, the native religion of the country, and Buddhism, a foreign religion to all intents and purposes, lie together and tolerate each other surprisingly peacefully here, certainly more harmoniously than our Nonconformity and Anglicanism, not to mention the animosity among denominations, or the suspicion of Papists. But then these schisms are derived from profound theological considerations which can only arise from spiritual and intellectual depth.
Chihiro and I descended from the hill by a different route, following quiet streets where life was lived as it were in episodes or small, self-sufficient chapters, behind paper doors as thin as a moth’s wing. Suddenly, I was alarmed for I imagined for a moment, Leila, that I saw your face looking out at me from behind one of these doors. However, your visage disappeared as quickly as it had formed. On seeing my alarm, and hearing what I thought I had seen, Chihiro told me that to see a moth, for the Japanese, meant to see the spirit of your beloved, who is about to die or is in purgatory. Was it your face I saw there, Leila? Or was it in truth a moth that was flapping its wings, and creating a ghostly image between candle and paper door?
The incense wafted more strongly from some houses than others; elsewhere, we could hear hushed whispering or the laughter of a child. Then we descended to another district by the name of Gion. Here there were none of the usual street lamps, but rather paper lanterns everywhere, flickering like corpse candles. For some reason it was quieter here too, with no rattling carts or the noise of children playing. Chihiro explained to me that this was the district of the machiya and the ochaya—the teahouses where the geisha practised their ancient and secret craft. Behind every paper door was a completely mysterious world to me, and the only trace I perceived of them was the rows of shoes placed tidily at each entrance. We had a glimpse before leaving of a geiko hurrying across the road, going from one appointment to the next. I had heard much of these women over recent weeks, and I expected to be disgusted at them when I saw them. Yet there was something entrancing about this girl, who walked as if she were floating, and who bore such an expression of peace on her white countenance. Then she disappeared behind a paper door, again almost like a moth, and there was nothing of her to be seen apart from her strange, high shoes on the doorstep. I long to hear from you, my dearest Leila. Send word to me by care of the emperor himself, if you wish:—your letter is certain to reach its destination. To hear from you, or from any of my dear kin or acquaintance in gallant little Wales would be sure to cheer my heart.
I am as ever,
15 May 1868
Although your continued silence dismays me, I persevere with my correspondence in the hope that this letter will reach you as a token of my safety and contentment, if not happiness, here in Japan. I hope and pray that you are all in safety across the distant seas, and that you receive this missive from my hand. I have not heard either from the Baptist Union—who sent me, like Noah’s dove, across the waters. I would be grateful if you would convey to them that I am safe and continuing with my mission here.
My dwelling is now Nijo-jo, a sort of castle within the imperial palace, Ninomaru. Ever since the emperor proclaimed his rule over the land in January this year, plans have been afoot to move the palace and retinue to Edo, and to rename that city “Tokyo.” However, the quarrelling among the noblemen has been such that the move has been postponed for now. There are brawls and battles all across the land, and the young emperor is seldom here in the palace, which is frustrating since I have no occasion to urge him to turn his mind to Jesus Christ and the true faith. Yet this palace, in its own way, is also a world and a universe, because of the complex strata it contains. Only the emperor himself, and those nearest to him—his intended empress, together with his concubines or consorts—may gain admission to the inner sanctum. The remaining members of the court are then disposed according to their rank and importance around that sanctum. Strict control is maintained over these hierarchical strata, and though I am very grateful for the emperor’s hospitality, I am yet on the margins of the outermost circle. Chihiro, however, by virtue of her nobility and her status in the retinue, dwells closest to the inner sanctum. This rigidity is understandable, for the Mikado, the emperor, is constantly under threat of attack or an attempt on his life. It would be difficult to imagine a better defensive position than this one, though, on account of the structure of the castle itself. The wooden walkways surrounding the rooms have been created with such skill and ingenuity that they twitter like birds when they are walked upon: they are called uguisubari, or nightingale floors. The experience of traversing them during the day is quite vexatious; but at night, there is a kind of comfort to be had from hearing the court’s comings and goings, and from knowing that any lurking figure can be heard approaching, if he dares.
Indeed, the civil war is creating such a perilous situation that I feel quite frustrated at not being free to travel about and wander as I would wish. Chihiro and I have become quite good friends, but I am not permitted to venture anywhere outside the palace unless I am in her company. In spite of that, life goes on in the old ruined city, and we are reasonably comfortable although we hear every day news from this place and that about losses and victories. One way of life which has been especially favoured among the nobility for some centuries still persists, as if there were no war happening at all. For that matter, I myself have given way to this way of life—perhaps indeed my peers at home, and you amongst them, Leila, would be inclined to say “excessively.” Yet you do not witness as I do the threat of that ever-present yet distant destruction.
I have completely fallen in love with this way of life: it is commonly referred to as ukiyo or 浮世, which in translation conveys something like “The Floating World.” The life of ukiyo or the Floating World is an entrancing and simple one. The emphasis is placed always and above all else on pleasure and the best things of this world, and on the joys of the flesh. Do you know, for instance, that a particular season is set aside here simply for wandering beneath the cherry trees to savour and admire their blossom? Another season is dedicated to the appreciation of the beauty of the dead. You are aware that from time to time there are earthquakes in these parts, which are prone to shake the foundations of the lives of the whole population. I surmise that it is from the consciousness that their entire world could come crashing down about their ears at any moment that this pleasure-seeking and sensuous way of life derives.
In this world, pleasure is king, and to please that monarch I have been wandering from the kabuki theatre to sumo wrestling contests. I even had the opportunity to see one of the dances of the geiko in Gion, and I was ravished by it. Another way in which this Floating World is manifest in my daily life is in the onnayu. In these public baths, women are treated like minor goddesses and men bow and grovel before them, in a way that would never occur at home in dear little Wales. Here the flesh and nakedness are completely natural, a warmth to be shared among us, as we bathe together and caress one another’s skin. There in the onnayu, Leila my dearest, I experienced a thrill and a kind of earthquake, not entirely unlike those earthquakes which I have not felt since our youthful days together, when—but I am being too bold, to my shame. Do you see the way in which this country has taken me in its clutches and has made me fearless? I almost hope that the fate of this letter will be the same as its predecessors, and that it will never arrive at its destination—your hands and your gaze. And yet—your warm hands, your gaze . . . Do you remember, dear Leila?
I know that my feeble words, unworthy as I am, can never convey to you one grain of the colour, the excitement and the awakening of body and soul, that this way of life gives to one. To me Kyoto possesses an ancient majesty, a ruined, fragmented splendour not to be found in Edo (or Tokyo) nor anywhere else except in a city which was once the centre of a universe but which has now been consigned for a considerable time to the margins. I am under the spell of this city, and I fear that whenever I must leave it will be too soon.
I must now fall silent and take my farewell,
4 June 1868
My dearest Leila,
I am not yet ready or willing to give up hope that one of my letters will reach your hands, nor to refrain from believing that our friendship is still able to fly over land and sea and traverse oceans, as it does at times in my dreams. Thus, I write to you once more—and yet I believe that by now I do so as much for my own sake as for anyone else’s, in order to chronicle the experiences that have come to my part, so that I do not in future, when I look back on the period of my life that I spent here, fail to believe the things I saw, heard, and felt.
At last an opportunity arose to venture abroad a little further because a period of relative peace has descended, and the Emperor has more or less won the day. The rumour is that the entire imperial retinue is preparing to move to Edo. I expressed to Chihiro my desire, before we leave for Tokyo, to travel to the city of Nara, one of the most sacred of cities for the Japanese, and therefore it was arranged for a party of us to undertake an excursion there which was to take the better part of a day. This was a research visit for me, of course, to discover more about the beliefs and temples of Buddhism and Shinto, so that I am better able to educate the people about the True God. I thought that I had had my fill of temples, but these temples were otherworldly and marvelous, to a degree that no other temple will ever again compare to them in my mind. What struck me in the rural location of Nara was the spaciousness, and the small glimpses of temples seen from afar caused a thrill to pass through me. As we passed by them, I could not resist passing my fingers heedlessly over a row of prayer wheels. I immediately felt ashamed of myself.
There in the Todai-ji, a gigantic and ancient temple, the largest wooden building in the world, is the largest brazen statue of the Buddha ever made. The place makes one light-headed as one stands within its holy precincts. Dear Leila, I have an utterly miraculous story to relate to you, one that even now I can scarcely believe. I am sure that you have heard of the origins of the Brythonic people, of how we came from the womb of Europe, or the sooty depths of Asia and the mountains of Siberia. You will have some interest therefore in the belief in these parts that the true roots and origins of the mighty Celt lie much further back than that.
Is not our history as Celts and Brythonic peoples one long journey toward the west? After traversing the wide-open steppes of Russia and the darkest depths of Asia, civilizing benighted Europe, we landed on the furthest shores of the edge of the known world. Then after we were subjugated and lost our own lands and our language, on, on again across the great ocean toward the land of Canaan! To settle once more on the margins of Brazil and the shores of America, where Madoc had been a founding father before us. Yet here am I, having returned to the east, going against the grain, as I have done so often in my desire to break free of the bonds of this poor, weak, female body.
But I think that here I have come across a little story—whether it is a story or a fable, I do not know—to explain the origins of the Welsh people, even further back than their sojourn in furthest Russia.
There was a short, genial-looking monk dressed in gray sackcloth guiding us around the temple. When I told him that I came from Wales originally, he smiled broadly, bowed, and then laughed. He was utterly delighted—Wales was famous in Japan once. Indeed, in this man’s opinion, Wales and Japan had an indissoluble connection with each other, and he had been waiting patiently for some decades to meet one of our compatriots. The man said that one of the Buddha’s disciples had asked his master as they sat meditating in the very hall in which we stood: what can I do to reach Nirvana? There was a round hole in one of the wooden columns of the temple, no bigger than a pig’s bladder. In order to reach Nirvana, his teacher said to him, it was necessary to meditate deeply and for a long time, and that would be enough to pass through that little hole. Unfortunately, this pupil was unable to meditate sufficiently. The Buddha thought carefully, and then said to his pupil: if you were able to meditate long and deeply enough, without a break and concentrating so hard that you could create and imagine a whole nation in your own mind, completely formed and whole, with all the talents and attributes that belong to a nation, then you would be able to pass through the hole to Nirvana, for you would have reached the furthest depths and breadth of your thoughts.
You will never believe the story, Leila, but according to the monk who told me the tale, this pupil embarked conscientiously on his meditation and continued for six months and six days. He sat in the Hall of Dreams with his back straight and his eyes closed, and he did not move a muscle. His hair and his beard and his nails grew long. Food was brought to him every day, but when they came back to fetch the crockery hours later, the bowl and the chopsticks were untouched. By the time he emerged from his meditations at the end of this period, he had fully formed in his mind a little nation of people, who lived on the margins of Europe, on the rocky edges of the continent, its edges stretching out toward the ocean, a very different ocean from the one with which the pupil himself was familiar. This nation was open to the elements, but she had mountains too, small mountains in comparison with giants such as Fuji, but mountains which nevertheless sometimes acted as a refuge and shelter.
And yet—and yet . . . He was a pupil, and neither his mind nor his ability had achieved its full development and amplitude, and the result was that he imagined a kind of unfinished nation, a wretched half-made nation, with a long and sorrowful past, but possessing no future. She had no national institutions, and she had for centuries suffered under the yoke of a powerful foreign nation. Indeed, she had been in thrall to that nation for so long that she had begun to deceive herself into believing that she was a part of that larger nation, and had been tempted and encouraged to perform the wicked deeds of the larger nation for it. This was a half-nation, and the Buddha was quite disappointed with the pitiful meditative gifts of his disciple. He said as much to him; “But they have their own language,” argued the pupil, “and a long and venerable literary tradition in that language, both oral and written, and poets galore to maintain the memory of the glories of the past, and an old, old religion.” The Buddha replied, “Is that enough to sustain a nation? Isn’t there a need for more than a tradition, more than antiquity, in order to become a full member of the nations of the world?”
The monk smiled, and said to me, “Wales was the nation that the pupil imagined.”
I did not return his smile. I was annoyed and agitated! Was I not there, standing in front of him, as true as the day, the Welshest of Welsh girls that ever set foot on this land? I retorted that the Welsh nation was a small but proud one, and that she most certainly existed. She is not the culmination of the dreams of some lowly, inept monk. The monk’s only reply was to take my hand and lead me across the hall, and there was the self-same hole in the wooden pillar—exactly the same size as a pig’s bladder.
Look here, I protested, could I not speak the Welsh language to him? Was that not proof in itself that the language of heaven and its homeland existed? He continued to smile, alleging that what emerged from my mouth and entered his ears was a series of meaningless sounds and symbols. Much more evident to him, he said, from looking at me, was that I looked like a girl from Japan in my clothing, my carriage, my conduct and, yes, even in my language. There was no quarrelsomeness or hatred in his argument, nothing but tenderness.
I became ashamed and was disgusted at myself. The monk was perfectly correct. I have for some time abandoned my old clothing and have taken to wearing the fashions of the court, I arrange my hair carefully every morning, and have taken, hesitatingly, to applying a thin layer of white powder to my cheeks. I saw myself for what I am now: I have become Japanese and I am no longer a Welshwoman (at least, not from the outside). But I vowed that I would return, dressed in the best Sabbath dress of my youth, with the language of my forefathers on my lips, with pictures and books from the old country to show him.
I was not as sure of myself when I returned dejectedly to the old city a few days later. From where had I come? Had Wales been merely a foolish dream? Oh my dear Leila, write to me soon, so that I can persuade myself that you are no illusion, nor is the country that was everything to me for so long, and that Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross was no fleeting dream.
27 June 1868
I am sorry for the lengthy lapse of time since my last letter, for the spirit of haste and anxiety in which I write these tidings, and for the things which I am forced to disclose in sending you these words. However, great events have befallen, and the world has changed, indeed many worlds have changed. I apologise also if you have recently seen fit to write to me in Nijo-jo—I no longer have my dwelling there, and I fear that I will never in my lifetime see the place again.
It is odious to me to place these words on record, but the truth must be told somewhere, even if that truth happens to be lost somewhere on the wide ocean. Leila, you know how I gave myself thoroughly and uncompromisingly to the ukiyo way of life. I ventured so far away from my Christian upbringing! My fall was complete. I have already expressed to you (I will no longer call you by the polite form “chwi”; calling you “ti” will be the least of my transgressions) the way in which I became accustomed to the daily onnayu, and it was there in one of the public bath-houses that I became acquainted with a flock of geiko. I was extraordinarily bold in bathing in their company; such comfort in our mutual nakedness I had never felt before. Yet that in itself was not the worst sin, though it was a foreshadowing of what was to come. Their company had awoken in me the desire for sweet flesh and a passion for soft, young skin. Moreover, not just any flesh, but—oh! To record it here for the first time fills me with terror and relief—a woman’s flesh. Leila, I desired your flesh once, and to declare that now is of no concern because I know that I will never see you again.
The truth of it is that I, still yearning for you, was caught in bed with Chihiro in her chamber. I can only wonder at my own daring and boldness, and even today I do not understand why I acted as I did, unless there was something, which had until then lain hidden and buried within me, that had been revealed and exhumed by this miraculous country and its customs. The emperor’s foot soldiers heard my footsteps tiptoeing across the nightingale floor to Chihiro’s chamber. I was so certain that I had taken every precaution! I do not know whether this will horrify you further and fill you with disgust, Leila, but I find it incumbent upon me to emphasise that I did not feel, and I do not feel, any passionate love for Chihiro. It was entirely a physical attraction, and an attraction that seemed wholly natural in the nakedness of the baths, and in the heat of the sheets of her castle, but one which, now that I am some distance away from there, is completely distasteful to me. Yet I can do no less than bleed for her, for she was apprehended and I escaped, and her dearest wish to become in due course a handmaiden to the emperor is now in tatters.
At this time, since I succeeded in escaping, I am in hiding here in Hakone, a small town near the foot of Mount Fuji where boiling water bubbles up from the depths of the earth, and where it flows and escapes not far from here in yellow bubbles and a noisome odour. The journey here was long and tiring, and the climb through the damp, wooded foothills wearisome. I worried constantly that I did not resemble everyone else, and that they would ostracise me. But oh! such humility and kindness have I encountered on all sides. The climb almost finished me, but I was able to rest one night in the home of an old woman, and to taste once more that healing draught, green tea. I went on by the mountain ways until I arrived here in this spot so remote that the emperor’s soldiers may never find me. I gained shelter in an isolated boarding house, not far from the lake, and here I am still with hardly any possessions or treasures, composing these words in the light of a paper lantern.
I am cold here. I went in the blink of an eye from the company and life and noise of the court to this state of loneliness and exile in Hakone of the mountains and boiling waters. The scent of incense has been displaced by the scent of sulphur. I hide here with no word or news from anywhere, not knowing what has happened to the court at Kyoto nor to any of my old friends there. The owner of the boarding house and some of the inhabitants of this scattered community are kind enough: but they are also suspicious of me, and though they do not wish to drive me away, they do not wish to have cordial relations with me, especially in these worrying, warlike times. That is what is difficult, I believe—I have this desire to escape from myself to be with someone else. I do everything with just myself for company—it is no surprise that I begin to tire of that company! Leila, in my shame, I beg you now—if you wish to send word, send it here to this address to lighten the spirit of a sinner such as myself.
Note with letter A35
There is a significant gap in the correspondence between letter A34 and A35, and it is uncertain whether there are some letters missing or not. It is quite possible that Ms Morgan stopped writing for a time in order to avoid being found. Another possibility is that she did not have access to writing equipment, such as pens and paper or parchment. The next letter in the series is remarkable because it is written in katakana, the simplest and most basic alphabet in Japanese, often used to express words and syllables in foreign languages; as far as is known, this is the only substantial attempt ever made to write Welsh using this alphabet. The letter, once translated, is dated “the eighth day of the ninth month,” the first time that Dolores used this system of dating, which means (according to the western calendar) 23 October 1868.
The eighth day of the ninth month, 1868
My dearest Leila,
I write to you, though I know with considerable certainty that no such person as you exists, and that the hours I spent in your company were no more than a dream which lasted a little too long after awakening. I have received no word from you since my arrival here in Nippon, and I worried about that for a long time; I understand now that there was never a possibility that you would answer me, for you are no more than a ghost, a vague illusion conjured from my own imagination.
I have experienced a trace of the inner peace that comes with deep meditation and with following the way of the Buddha. Here in the mountains where the water emerges warm from the earth I feel that my self is becoming whole. I feel that I have been climbing Mount Fuji, have been on a long journey and am on the verge of reaching the end, almost at the peak.
By now I long for one thing above all else, namely to be able to return to Nara, to thank that monk who revealed to me those things which I always knew in my heart, who made clear to me the illusion of what I imagined and dreamed, and who awoke me to my true life. I was called away from that small nation on the margins of Europe, the nation that does not exist except in the mind of one monk, in order to return here to the Land of the Rising Sun. I know now that Wales never existed except in my dreams.
If the court were to go to Edo, I might perhaps venture down from the mountains and visit the temple in Nara. I could return to sit at the feet of the monk, and lay before him my entire soul in order to meditate there for the rest of my life, and one day be able to pass through that hole to Nirvana. However, just two days ago I heard a rumour that the emperor had been crowned in Kyoto, with his empress by his side and his concubine in the vanguard of his retinue. I do not know what became of Chihiro. The Great Empire, Dai Nippon Teikoku, is reaching its zenith, and I rejoice in that. I bear no ill will toward the emperor nor to any of his court. Yet for me, there can be no return. As it stands, I can see only one means of escape, and in that I will be imitating the samurai themselves. The emperor and an entire class of nobles were brought to their knees; what hope therefore can there be for a missionary like myself who dreamt for so long of a nation that did not exist? Yet I can put an end to my floating way of life in the same way that they did, and in so doing gain control, at least, over my own death if not over my life, and turn into a mere moth.
If you existed, Leila, I would explain to you something I learned and came to understand quite recently. I will do so now, and I will send this letter, in the hope that it will reach the end of its journey somewhere, on the margins of Europe where the land’s edge prostrates itself to an ocean that is quite different from the one I can see far beyond the horizon in Sagami Bay. There is another word in this language which sounds to the ear exactly the same as the ukiyo by which I was once infatuated. In order to explain the difference, I must turn to the kanji syllabary. Ukiyo, the “Floating World,” is spelt like this: 浮世. But the word ukiyo has another meaning. It is spelt 浮き世 and it means “Sorrowful World.” This is the world of trouble and grief and sorrow, of death and rebirth, from which the followers of Buddha seek to escape. In my folly, Leila, though in an artificial language from the margins of Europe, I fear that I confused these two things atrociously, the floating world and the sorrowful world, without thinking for a moment that the two could, in the end, lead to the same place.
"Dolores Morgan's Letters from the Far East" © Llŷr Gwyn Lewis. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Katie Gramich. All rights reserved.
A woman and her son fight to survive in a postapocalyptic landscape in this excerpt from the Wales Book of the Year.
Mam says that it's best to write like this now. Because she can't be bothered to teach me, I think. Can't be bothered or can't find the energy. I'm not sure which it is. Or if there's any difference.
She used to sit with me for an hour each morning, the hour when Dwynwen sleeps. Stuff like adding and reading. Not like we used to do at school, no graphs or times tables or anything like that. She got me to read books and then I had to write about them. She marked them with a red biro, telling me where I'd spelled something wrong or said something stupid. Then after doing adding up and taking away, there was no more math. She started to worry. About the biros too, because we don't want them running out.
“I don't have anything else to teach you, Siôn,” she said yesterday. She'd just read through something I'd written about a romantic novel about a man and a woman who meet on a train and I think something clicked in her. “There's no point carrying on like this.” So, she said, as long as I spend an hour writing every day, she wasn't going to bother me with schoolwork anymore.
She got this book from a house we broke into in Nebo. It was in one of the small drawers of a little desk in the corner of someone's living room. Usually, we only steal the really important stuff like matches or rat poison or books. But she held this notebook in her hands and turned it over a few times before putting it in her bag.
“You have that,” she said later, when we got home, “to write your story.”
“The Blue Book of Nebo,” I smiled, taking the book from her. The pages were blank and wide, like a new day.
“Eh?” asked Mam.
“Like The Black Book of Carmarthen, or The Red Book of Hergest. That's how they did it in the olden days.” I'd read about them in a book about Welsh history. “Important books that said something about our history. And now that’s a part of history too, isn't it?”
The book's jacket is a lovely rich dark blue, almost black. It doesn't look like an important book, but all books are just words strung together.
After that, I put the book on the top shelf in case Dwynwen got hold of it and I went up to the lean-to to fix the leaking corner. You wouldn't believe how much water can get through a tiny hole like that. It only needed a tiny lump of plasticine, and then a piece of tarpaulin on top, about two inches square. I could only spare one nail, because there weren't many left. It'll do for now.
Dwynwen started crying, and Mam went to fetch her from the cradle.
There's a hell of a view from the lean-to. Down toward Caernarfon, where you can see the castle towers jutting out like gnarling teeth, and then the sea and Anglesey beyond it. I can't ever remember going to Anglesey, but Mam says I went loads of times when I was a little boy. There were nice places to go for walks, Mam says, with nice beaches all around, because Anglesey is an island. I was thinking about that yesterday when I was sitting on the roof of the lean-to, looking out. Seeing the sea and the island, which looks too big to be an island from here. There are trees and fields and places I don't know between here and the sea. Yesterday was a cold day—cold enough to make my mouth steam, like snow in a saucepan. I sat there thinking about all those people in the olden days, poor things, going to beaches in their cars and sitting there all day with nothing to do. Standing with their feet in the water, then splashing about a bit and then having a picnic. I try not to think about those people too much.
Then I heard Mam coming out with Dwynwen strapped to her breast, and I climbed down the ladder. There was too much to do to waste time thinking about Anglesey and the olden days.
Our house is in a dead place. What I mean is, it's in the middle of nowhere, and no one ever comes here. Well, almost no one. In the olden days, an elderly couple lived in the house called Sunningdale, which is about seventy-eight steps from our house. They went away soon after The End, same as everyone else.
“What's Sunningdale?” I asked Mam one day after I'd been looking though their windows.
“A bloody stupid name,” she barked back. “Keep away from that house, Sionyn. It isn't ours.”
I think I can remember Mr. and Mrs. Thorpe, but I can't be sure. He was tall with white hair and glasses that always seemed to be reflecting some light, so you could never quite see his eyes. She was small and thin and stared at you as she spoke. Sunningdale is exactly the same as it was when they left it, except that I've used their garden for planting and I've cut down a few of their trees for firewood. I want to go inside the house, but Mam says no. For some reason, she's a bit funny about Sunningdale and Mr. and Mrs. Thorpe.
The truth is, they've probably gone forever. They were old, old enough to have stopped working. They did pointless things, like playing golf and growing tiny trees called bonsai in their kitchen window. They probably went away to find their families and decided to stick with them. Somewhere in England, probably.
Today, I was cutting down branches from their garden to dry out and use as kindling. Mam was standing at the bottom of the tree, and Dwynwen was tied to her chest, trying to talk. Mam was bundling up the branches as I was throwing them down, because that makes it easier to drag them home. It's easier for me to climb trees and to go up on the roof and all that, because Mam has a bad leg and walks with a limp. But she still climbs onto the roof of the lean-to with me when it's sunny or starry.
Curtains with tiny pink flowers on them, and the neatly made bed, the covers pulled tight and smooth. A wardrobe painted white, and little white tables on each side of the bed, books piled high but tidily on them.
“Come on, Sionyn. It's going to start raining properly in a bit!” Mam said, waiting for the branches.
I cut another one and threw it down before saying, “They've got a lot of books in there.”
Mam was silent.
“And blankets on the bed. A duvet, I think. And two pillows.” I dragged the saw slowly and heavily over another branch.
“It's got nothing to do with us,” said Mam firmly. I knew then that I had to shut up. Mam isn't a woman who argues—she just closes herself, like a door or a book. She thinks that breaking into Sunningdale is different to breaking into the other houses in Nebo, and I can't see why.
She is thirty-six years old today.
We still have the old calendar, the one from 2018, the year The End came. And we can't be certain that we're in the right place, because the days when we were sick at the beginning all went into one mess of time—it might have been three days, it might have been a fortnight. But never mind. We've guessed where we are. Mam doesn't like celebrating, but I think it's a big thing. Thirty-six years of living! And I've been with her for fourteen of those. She's been with me.
“You've been me with almost half your life,” I said, chucking down another branch.
She stilled and looked up at me through the leaves. Her hair was wet, and she'd zipped up her raincoat over Dwynwen. All I could see of my little sister was a blue fleece hat.
Sometimes I think it's impossible for someone to be as beautiful and ugly as my mother.
I know it's a horrible thing to say. Mam hates it when I call people ugly, even people in stories, and I can't understand that. As long as they don't hear it, what's the harm? But Mam says that the people who see others as ugly on the outside are themselves ugly on the inside. I must be hideous inside because sometimes I think that Mam is really very ugly.
I don't see many people, so perhaps I can't judge who is ugly and who is beautiful, but I remember The End. I was six, after all, and six years is a long time to collect memories. I think I can remember women looking like they do on book covers—fat pink lips, smooth milky skin, and soft hair with no bits sticking up. Mam isn't like that. She has a long thin face with huge eyes and a small mouth, and a nose that's too long for her face. Her body is tall and strong, not fat but all hard, no soft bits. Before The End, she used to cut her hair short and dye it blonde, but cutting hair is just another job now, and it grows like brambles around her head, thick as dog hairs, black as a November midnight with tiny silver wires here and there.
I wonder if I look like her.
She looked at me for a long time, up in the trees. I thought for a bit that she was going to tell me to break into Mr. and Mrs. Thorpe's house, but in the end she just turned away. Dwynwen chatted to herself under Mam's coat—I could hear her voice although I couldn't see her, a disembodied chatter of nonsense words. She's getting too big to be carried now.
I'll go hunting tonight. Try to get hold of a rabbit or a wild cat so that Mam can have some meat on her birthday. There are traps down on the potato field already. She'll have a good birthday this year.
I caught a rabbit yesterday. It was twitching in the trap, so I killed it quickly with my pocket knife and caught the blood in a bottle. Mam makes a sauce with it to put on the potatoes, because it makes us stronger. She had to drink it sometimes when Dwynwen wanted her milk all the time, because a woman has to be strong to make milk. Sometimes, Mam would drink half a cup of it and throw it all back up again. She says that however cold it is, blood always tastes warm to her, and it makes her feel sick.
I skinned the rabbit and took it home, and said, “Happy Birthday Mam.” I'd been to fetch the birthday card this morning, and had put it on the mantelpiece. There's a photo of a racing car on it, and “HAPPY BIRTHDAY—SIX TODAY” written on it, but never mind. That's the only card we had left. I had thirteen birthday cards, but we decided to burn the rest after The End, because we didn't know anything then, not even to store kindling in a dry place for winter.
“Thanks, love,” Mam smiled. Dwynwen was on the floor playing with the toy snake Mam had made out of a sock. I put the rabbit in a pot on the fire.
“Did you skin it?”
“It's drying out in the shed.”
I don't remember Mam's birthdays before. Well, I remember the most recent ones, of course, but not the ones before The End. But I remember my own birthdays. The cakes and the candles and the shiny wrapping paper on the presents. And I remember the other children's names, though I can't remember their voices or the way they moved or laughed.
There must have been more than that, but I can't remember. I've tried and tried, but the more I try, the less I remember. It's like trying to remember a dream.
We eat the rabbit with walnuts. It’s wonderful. We keep half for tomorrow, because you wouldn’t believe how much meat you can get off a rabbit.
Tonight, when Dwynwen is in bed, we sit on the roof of the lean-to because the sky's so clear.
“You're enjoying the writing,” said Mam, and I wasn't sure whether she was asking me a question.
“Yeah, but I think something needs to be written about The End. It doesn't make sense otherwise. And I don't know enough about it.'”
Mam nodded. “You were only little then. It was a long time ago.”
“You should write, Mam. Share the book with me. Just say what happened.”
“I was rubbish at writing at school.”
“You've read thousands of books since then. You'll be better at it now.”
And we agreed, Mam and me, to share The Blue Book of Nebo. She'll write about the olden days and The End, and I'll write about now, about how we live. And we've agreed not to read what the other has written, just in case. In case of what, I'm not sure.
“Except if something happens to one of us,” Mam said with a gentle little sigh, and I didn't reply because I didn't need to. I get it. We were quiet for a while.
“I'd love a smoke right now,” said Mam. She says that sometimes in the evenings. Smoking is a thing from the olden days where people put a small thing on fire and then put it in their mouths, then they swallowed the smoke. I can't remember much about it, only the smell. It was warm and thick and lovely to begin with and then went stale and bitter after a few hours.
“Is that what you'd choose as a birthday present? If you could have anything you wanted?” Mam stared out over Anglesey and thought about it. She smelled like outside.
‘Nothing,” she said after a while. “I wouldn't choose anything.”
That sounded lovely, and I knew it was a lie. Everyone wants something. “Anything in the world, Mam. Even from the olden days.”
Mam sighed. “OK. I'd have a Bounty.”
“Bounty. It was a chocolate bar, Siôn.”
I can remember chocolate, of course, but not that kind. I remember Dairy Milk and Penguin and Milkybar and Rocky.
“The inside was all pieces of coconut. Sticky with sugar. I always ate the chocolate first, and then the middle bit. The milk chocolate one came in a blue wrapper, and the dark chocolate one had a deep red one.”
“Are coconuts like walnuts?”
“No, no. They're sweet, and they're lots and lots of little bits, all stuck together.”
I regretted asking about her ideal gift then, because Mam goes quiet when we've talked about the olden days, and it's not the kind of quiet you get when you work but it's a kind of quiet when there aren't any words that fit.
“I never thought about it, you know,” she said after a while. “Nobody did. You just walked into a shop or a garage, and if a bar of chocolate or bag of crisps took your fancy, you bought it.” She shakes her head. “Even if you weren't hungry!”
“I can't remember,” Mam replied. She was quiet for a bit and then she said, “Because it was there.”
I've tried writing things down before, but nothing ever works. It never feels like the truth when I read it back to myself. It feels like it happened to someone else, in a world that was never real. And so many winters have gone by since The End, and I'm scared that if I don't write it now, I never will.
It happened so quickly. The End. I might as well be straight from the very beginning in case you're looking for answers—I don't know what happened. Not properly.
Siôn was in school and I was at work. I worked in a hairdressing salon, mostly doing small children and old ladies. The people between those age ranges tended to go to the more expensive salons in town, where they could get sparkly nails and shaped eyebrows too. I was happy, because I never suited those kinds of salons, and Gaynor, the owner, let me finish work in time to pick Siôn up from school. Sometimes, if we were busy, I'd bring him back with me and he'd sit in one of the leather chairs by the sinks and speak in an old-fashioned way with the old ladies. He knew how to get them to lean over their small boxy bags and unclasp them before offering him a cool pound coin. Gaynor would keep a stash of crisps and Penguin bars in the cupboard under the till especially for him.
She was kind.
Then, one day, the news came on the radio—we always listened to the radio at work—that bombs had been dropped on some of America's big cities. And Gaynor and I looked up and locked eyes over the heads of our ladies. And after I finished with mine, I told Gaynor I was feeling unwell, and she gave me the afternoon off. She knew I was lying, but she also knew I wouldn't lie unless I had to.
This is what I did.
Walked to the other end of the village to Mei's Garage and hired a transit van for the rest of the day. Drove to the big Tesco in Bangor, which was becoming busy with panic buyers like me. And I bought all the dried food I could load into the trolley. Chickpeas and beans, pearl barley, sacks and sacks of different sorts of rice. As many painkillers as I was allowed to, which wasn't that many in case I wanted to kill myself. And then I went on to B&Q and bought loads of things I wasn't sure I'd ever need—nails and screws, batteries, two wind-up torches, huge sheets of plastic. Two polytunnels and whole boxes of seed packets. Two apple trees (it was spring). A gardening fork and a spade. Rat poison.
On the way home, I stopped at the Spar to get Siôn a couple of Freddos.
I went home and unloaded everything into the garage. Went into the house, and printed page after page of information from the Internet. How to make a rabbit trap. How to grow vegetables. Old fashioned remedies that grew in the garden. Which wild plants are safe to eat. How to purify the water supply.
I returned to the village and took the van back to the garage, and fetched Siôn. I went to the Spar again to get more chocolate. People had cleared the place of all the tinned food, but there were a few pizzas going out of date, so I bought those for our tea.
Back in the salon, as Siôn was busy scoffing his Freddos and chatting to an old woman about his teacher, I said to Gaynor, “You can come and live with us.”
She smiled, a tight little smile I'd never seen before. “Good God, Rowenna, don't overreact. We'll be fine!” She was brushing the floor, a horizon of gray hairs stretching over the lino.
“Of course we will. But if you ever need to. Come to us.”
Gaynor cleared her throat, as if she was trying to rid her mouth of the words that were threatening to escape. And she carried on cleaning, and we had a coffee, and the hair salon felt like the safest place in the world.
I can't remember what we said after that, but I do remember that before Siôn and I left, she said, “You've been very good to me.” And I didn't understand, because she'd always been the one who’d looked after me, just by being in the same place and being the same way every single day I'd known her.
Everything was normal for a day or two. Siôn still went to school and I still cut women's hair, and the stack of stuff in my garage started to feel like a foolish indulgence which I'd gone into debt to buy.
Then one morning, as I was painting a pale color into an old lady's hair, the electricity cut out. Just like that. It didn't flicker, just turned off and didn't come back. The radio became silent, and the lady sitting under the lamps murmured, “Bloody hell, what now?”
We waited a few minutes but it didn't come back. I had to rinse the lady's hair with cold water, which she moaned about since she'd only just shaken off a cold.
“Is it OK if I pop over to the school, in case they've lost their power too?” I asked Gaynor.
“You might as well go home for the day,” she replied. “I'll have to close if we don't have power.”
The schoolchildren were playing outside, and I stood there for a bit, watching Siôn. He was pretending to be a plane, two of his friends beside him doing the same. His arms outstretched like a man crucified.
We went home.
The electricity never came back. I waited for it for the first few days, but after a while I seemed to stop hoping. Siôn asked when he'd be going back to school, and I told him that I wasn't sure.
I think I'm hard now.
Sometimes, I think about who I was before. Rowenna, pretty and tidy and always, always making an effort. The make-up and straighteners and nail polish. Having been on a diet since I was twelve, I am now thin, and muscled, and tired and worried and stern. I haven't worn make-up for eight years, and my hair is turning white. I am thirty-six years old.
From Llyfr Glas Nebo (Cardiff: Ylolfa, 2018). © 2018 by Manon Steffan Ros. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Manon Steffan Ros. All rights reserved.
Photo: Tibetan poet Tsering Woeser (left) and translator Ian Boyden
For the last thirty years, the Tibetan writer and humanist Tsering Woeser has documented the relentless colonization and destruction of her homeland and its culture by the Chinese. She bears witness to this unfolding tragedy through essays, blogs, poems, social media posts, and photographs. Her documentation of events and her outspoken positions have put her in direct opposition to the Chinese government, thus placing her in a position of extreme danger. Despite years of intimidation, Woeser has continued to write, and today, not only is she the most prominent public intellectual in China discussing Tibet, she is one of the most followed and respected Tibetan voices in the world. While her essays and blog posts have been widely translated into English, her poems have received far less attention. Part of my ongoing project of translating her poems of the last decade is to also understand who Woeser is as a poet and to begin to understand what impels her to poetry. This is one of the first conversations with Woeser, and certainly the most in-depth, about a single poem to have appeared in English. This conversation unfolded over roughly six weeks while I translated the poem “Absent, or Not Absent,” which she wrote in the summer of 2017 for the Dalai Lama on the occasion of his eighty-second birthday.
As a Tibetan born at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, Woeser has experienced the full brunt of Chinese imperialism. Her poems of the last decade are driven by an intense sense of urgency, outrage, and grief. Woeser, a devout Buddhist and follower of the Dalai Lama, reveals that her internal world is occupied with aspects of religious experience that not only go to the very core of her identity as a Tibetan but also to a set of spiritual practices by which she understands and knows her own changing self. When one’s country is invaded, the entire fabric of reality is disrupted, and this includes aspects of the internal self. The very act of naming things which are missing becomes an act of resistance, rebellion, and subversion. The Dalai Lama’s physical absence from Tibet is not only symbolic or political, it is also a psychological and spiritual violence of untold proportions because it has affected the hearts of every Tibetan. This poem, “Absent, or Not Absent,” meditates on the resilience of the self as a form of defiance in the face of this scale of violence experienced by Tibetans.
One characteristic of Woeser’s poetry that deserves attention is the way she engages and employs symbols. Woeser has a remarkable eye for details in her environment that have the capacity to invoke larger cultural, social, religious, and/or political realities. She makes these details the overt subjects of her poems, and as she discusses their place in Tibetan culture, she simultaneously documents their transformations, often their deterioration, destruction, and subversion by an alien culture. As the poignancy grows, these singular details begin to serve as focal points for alluding to more pervasive changes in her world. For instance, in the first section of “Absent, or Not Absent,” we are presented with a dharma throne, which is the name given to a seat where lamas sit to lecture on Buddhist teaching. We then learn this particular dharma throne was made specifically for the Dalai Lama, and that it was once covered each day with flowers offered by his followers. We then learn that this seat stood empty when the Dalai Lama was forced into exile, and what’s more, that it was destroyed by the Chinese about a decade after they invaded and began to actively colonize Tibet. Where it used to exist, the Chinese erected a monument to the communist “liberation” of Lhasa. Thus, the dharma throne becomes a microcosm of sorts—what happens to this throne in the poem becomes a way of commenting on what has happened to Tibet, the Tibetan people, and their spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, as well as the practice of Tibetan Buddhism under the forces of Chinese imperialism, and the ubiquitous devastation wrought by Chinese colonialism. There are elements of our physical world which serve as direct reminders of what is missing. This poem is a meditation on a set of elements that speak to absence.
Woeser’s poems, perhaps difficult for readers unfamiliar with contemporary Tibet, are well worth the effort. At a time when Tibet is largely ignored by the international community, Woeser vividly conveys what it is like to experience the destruction of her culture, whose breakage and erasure is devised specifically to be revised and replaced by the occupiers. Woeser’s poems are not abstract meditations: they are of this world, which is our shared world. The violence she documents is real violence. The grief and heartache are real grief and real heartache. Her words are a call to conscience.
—Ian Boyden, May 8, 2019
Ian: I’ve wanted to translate this poem for a while, but have been feeling a little intimidated by its complexity and length. Let’s start with the title “Empty, or Not Empty.”* I immediately think of a Buddhist Hamlet’s variation on: “To be, or not to be?” And if I replace Denmark with Tibet as the background, the effect is remarkable. I see you, maybe your entire generation, maybe the Dalai Lama himself as Hamlet. Hamlet’s future, his love, all facets of his life have all been stolen by the treachery of King Claudius. The treachery of China. The parallels are startling.
Woeser: Empty, or not empty. To be, or not to be. I feel that in my life, and the lives of many Tibetans like me (and I am afraid it is not only Tibetans), we all face this question, this terrible dilemma. Of course, if you apply the principles of the Dharma, emptiness is superficial, and non-emptiness is profound. And then if you think about it more deeply, non-emptiness is superficial, and emptiness is profound. But this way of thinking is very esoteric, and it is only suitable for those who have made great achievements through meditation.
Ian: So, the “Empty” of this title does not refer to the Buddhist concept of śūnyatā?
Woeser: No. I am not referring to śūnyatā; I am talking about a specific set of elements of this world being empty, or not empty, or something being absent, or not absent. For people like me who choose to live in this world, we are more concerned with those aspects of reality and history which are absent, or not absent, whether something exists or does not exist. To be, or not to be? Hamlet can certainly be read as a metaphor for Tibet. But I think The Tempest also provides a fitting metaphor.
A gathering in the Suktlingka in 1964, a year before it was destroyed. The throne would have sat somewhere off the right edge of the photograph. To the left is one of the counter-clockwise-twisting willows. Photographer unknown.
Ian: With that let’s turn to the first section of the poem, “The Empty Dharma Throne: Shukti.” What is a dharma throne? What is the significance of this particular one?
Woeser: A dharma throne is a seat where lamas sit to teach the Dharma. These thrones are found in many monasteries all over Tibet. Sometimes they are located outside the monastery like this one. In the case of this poem, the throne was not ornate like the gold throne of the Norbulinka. As far as I know, this one was made of simple stone. Dharma thrones are very important objects. And, the throne in the Shuktilingka would have been one of the most important of all because it was the dharma throne of the Dalai Lama, a figure who unifies the political and the religious. After the exile of His Holiness, it became an “empty dharma throne.”
Ian: Do you have a photograph of the stone dharma throne that used to sit in the Shuktilingka before it was destroyed?
Woeser: I have looked for a photo for years but without luck. It may be that such a photo does not exist. I have photographs of the dharma throne in the Norbulingka and the dharmathrone in the Potala Palace, but not a single photograph of this throne.
Ian: Is your description of this dharma throne based on historical writings, or was this knowledge transmitted to you by word of mouth?
Woeser: My description is based on descriptions that older people, who saw the throne when they were young, have related to me.
Ian: When was this one built?
Woeser: No one knows when this dharma throne was established. The word lingka in Shuktilingka means a forested park. If you look at old photos, you will see that the Potala Palace was surrounded by a natural environment of open meadows, ponds, and trees. The reason the section of forest in front of the Potala Palace was called the Shuktilingka was because it held the dharma throne, which in Tibetan is called shukti. So this park was named after the throne. My suspicion is that it was established during the time of the fifth Dalai Lama (Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, 1617–82). He brought together both religious and political authority to establish the Tibetan government known as the Ganden Phodrang (in 1642). And he was the first Dalai Lama to start living in the Potala Palace. So, I think that the shukti (dharma throne) of the Shuktilingka may have been built in the mid-seventeenth century. But this is only my guess.
Ian: I often wonder how we can forget about monumental things like this dharma throne, or even an entire civilization. This happens again and again throughout history. A poem like this that remembers something which has disappeared becomes very special because it holds memory in a way that is not easily erased. It resists this form of monumental forgetting.
Woeser: This is the case with this throne, its existence has been largely forgotten. The person who first showed me the exact site where the dharma throne stood was a man who lives in Lhasa. He was born in the mid-1940s and knew about how the throne and the entire Shuktilingka were “disappeared” by the “liberators” after His Holiness left Lhasa. He and I went to the square. There were tourists standing around, and the army was there holding the Chinese flag and carrying guns. He brought me to the exact position where the throne had been. And he could not help crying, he covered his eyes with his hands.
Ian: Did he tell you what year it was destroyed?
Woeser: The Shuktilingka was destroyed in 1965. In the blink of an eye, the park and its wetlands were drained and filled, then covered with concrete to become what was then known as the People’s Cultural Palace Square (人民文化宫广场). This square was subsequently renovated in 1999 and renamed as Potala Square. In 2002, it became the site of the Monument to the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, a 120-foot-high structure commemorating the PLA liberation of Tibet in 1951. And in 2005, it was once again renovated to its current state.
Ian: I am interested in the poem’s detailing of the grass and flowers growing from the throne. Do you think these were wild plants, or would they have been intentionally planted in the cracks between the stones?
Woeser: Based on other stone dharma thrones I have seen in other monasteries, I think it was likely naturally growing grass. In the old photos there was grass growing all around the Potala Palace. The area where the dharma throne used to be is all paved over now, but the meadow of the Dzongyab Lukhang behind the Potala Palace is still there and it is full of dandelions and the like. My guess is what is there today is similar to the meadow that used to be in front of the palace. But it is not like the throne itself was covered in grass. The other stone dharma thrones have grass growing around the base and in some of the cracks between stones. But not on the top of the seat itself.
Ian: In your vision of this throne, the grass growing from the empty throne seems to carry a hidden meaning, perhaps some statement regarding the human condition, how the heart responds to absence. I’m thinking of Whitman’s first poem in Song of Myself, when he writes, “My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air.” Throughout that book the grass symbolizes hope; there is a democratic aspect to grass with each blade a symbol of the individual within the larger whole. I think Whitman saw something akin to reincarnation in the grass, the grass growing on the grave, its roots turning the remains of the dead back into life again.
Woeser: I should reread Whitman. That verse is so beautiful, visionary. But the actual reality is so grim—I’m talking about the reality of the grass that grew from the empty dharma throne of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In fact, this dharma throne no longer exists. The grass that grew there was pulled out, any grass that remained was sealed under concrete and stone tiles. This is the character of the modern Chinese imperial seal. Any surviving grass was smothered to death underneath it all. The intruders changed the geography. This is the most common thing imperialists do—they first target the geography. They spare no effort in destroying and changing the original geography. The grass has all disappeared. If one or two blades were to escape and begin to grow up through a crack in the cement, they will soon be trampled to death by the imperialists.
The reality is too cruel.
Ian: The act of vanquishing a culture often involves colonizers sterilizing the environment. So much of human history is a history of scorched earth. In the United States, those who colonized this continent slaughtered bison en masse, cut down most of the ancient forests . . . . Genocide is accompanied by a parallel ecocide.
And in this context of ecocide, you open the second section of the poem, “The Empty Room,” by honoring the photograph you have of the Dalai Lama with bouquets of flowers.
Woeser: Before we talk of flowers and photographs, let me tell you about another dharma throne that has its roots in resistance. There is a dharma throne in the Norbulinka that is known as the Golden Dharma Throne, and it is made of gold. But the fact of it being made out of gold is not what is remarkable here. Instead, its birth was a form of rallying cry. In 1957, the Chushi Gangdruk, an important Tibetan resistance force against the Chinese Communists, issued a call to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s twenty-third birthday. They asked the Tibetan people to make offerings of gold and other precious gems so that they could build a golden dharma throne. The dharma throne was completed in less than a month, and it symbolizes the unity and piety of the Tibetan people.
I think you can say the flowers I offer to the photograph of His Holiness are a symbol of resistance. They are also a symbol of piety. They also symbolize beauty and nature.
Ian: Having a photograph of the Dalai Lama is prohibited. When was this ban first put in place?
Woeser: The photograph of His Holiness has been banned at various points after his exile in 1959. There were not many photographs at that time. But by the Cultural Revolution his photograph was completely banned. But after the Cultural Revolution up until 1995, it became OK to have a shrine with a photograph of His Holiness. In 1995, because of the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, the Chinese Communist Party once again banned photographs of His Holiness, a ban that continues to this day.
Ian: Has making it illegal to display or worship this photo changed your relationship to the photo?
Woeser: Yes. For me the photograph of His Holiness now has two meanings: one, it is an expression of my faith and belief in His Holiness; two, it has become an expression of resistance, resistance to violent power.
Detail of the dharma throne in the Gzim Chung, with Kashag banknotes left as an offering and as a symbol of Tibetan autonomy. Photograph by Woeser.
Ian: It is noteworthy how powerful things can become when they are outlawed. The greater the restrictions placed on something, the more powerful it becomes. Now that His Holiness the Dalai Lama is not present to sit on these dharma thrones, the places where he used to sit and teach the dharma have a new form of power. Now that his photograph is banned, it too has taken on a new form of power. It is as if this state of absence makes the dharma more powerful. How would you describe the power of absence?
Woeser: Materialists are obsessed with everything in this life. They are obsessed with objects, they believe everything before their eyes is real. And when they are in power, when they have weapons, money, and technology, they believe they themselves are invincible. They like to say, “The people will prevail,” but what they are really saying is that they themselves will prevail. Therefore, they prohibit the dharma character of His Holiness from being shown in broad daylight, they prohibit the photographs of His Holiness from being shown in Buddhist temples and on the altars of his believers, they destroy or conceal the dharma thrones that belong to His Holiness. They believe that by doing this, they will make His Holiness disappear from Tibet. This is the arrogance of materialists in power. This is the arrogance of colonists.
However, the opposite is true. As you said, the more something is prohibited, the stronger it becomes. I wrote of a similar phenomenon regarding the Potala Palace in another poem:
Although it has been vacant for fifty-nine years,
It is still the body of the dharmakāya, the body of reality itself.
The bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara will come to fulfill our wishes,
My Sage will arrive as scheduled.
But you also said that the photograph “has taken on a new form of power.” I am not sure I understand that, I don’t know what a new form of power might be. I think it is really a form of existence, similar to the existence of the dharmakāya, it is spiritual, religious, and eternal. Because his photograph is forbidden, His Holiness is held in the mind and remembered more deeply.
Ian: At the end of “The Empty Room” you describe a sandalwood bench in an unnamed monastery on which there is a photograph of His Holiness the Dalai Lama . . .
Woeser: In recent years, in many places across Tibet, people print out life-sized photographs of the sage and place these images sitting on a dharma throne, on an altar, or even a regular bench like the one in this poem. They do this especially during the Kalachakra ceremony or on the birthday of His Holiness. It is an expression of how much they miss His Holiness, and it is also signifies that, even though the throne is empty, His Holiness is present.
Ian: This brings us to the third section of the poem, “The Empty City: Lhasa,” and your amazing description of your experience meditating at Lhamo Latso and receiving a vision of Avalokiteśvara. This bodhisattva, the most beloved of all bodhisattvas, has an extraordinary name. In Chinese, Avalokiteśvara is considered female and goes by the names Guanyin (觀音), Guanshiyin (觀世音), and Guanzizai (觀自在), meaning “Perceiver of Sounds,” “Perceiver of World Sound,” and “Perceiver of Self-existence” respectively. All three of these names embody the fundamental Buddhist orientation toward compassion for suffering: and one can easily expand the name to "One Who Perceives with Compassion the Suffering of Self-existence." In Tibetan, Avalokiteśvara is male and his name is Chenrézik. What is the meaning of this name in Tibetan?
Woeser: Karmapa discussed the meaning of this name in a lecture he gave at Bodhgaya several years ago:
The Tibetan name Chenrézik means "to use your eyes to perceive." What are the eyes referring to? They refer to compassion; compassion is like an eye. Who is the object of this perception? This would be all beings who wish to escape suffering and live in happiness. What is the method of observation? To perceive using the vast compassion of a bodhisattva. So, the full meaning of Chenrézik is "to perceive all sentient beings consistently with a compassionate eye." Therefore, this name should be interpreted as a form of ethical and moral character, and not as a signifier of a specific person.
Ian: Do you feel the ethical and moral character embodied by Chenrézik is your fate or destiny?
Woeser: My understanding of Chenrézik is quite simple and unadorned. It is based on traditional Tibetan Buddhist beliefs, and based on my traditional Tibetan cultural heritage. In Tibetan culture, Chenrézik has a long history flowing out from the distant past, and is related to the origins of the Tibetan people. In one of his incarnations, he came to Tibet as a monkey named Pha Trelgen Changchup Sempa, and out of compassion and mercy, he married an ogress, and they gave birth to the first Tibetans. King Songtsen Gampo, who is said to have introduced Buddhism to Tibet, is considered an incarnation of Chenrézik. And each member of the lineage of the Dalai Lama is also regarded as an incarnation of Chenrézik.
Ian: The late American poet Sam Hamill regarded Guanyin as a revolutionary, saying that she showed us a way of nonviolent resistance. It seems that poets, who hold the ethical and moral character of Guanyin in their hearts, resist using words.
Woeser: I think Sam’s view of Guanyin as a revolutionary providing a way of nonviolent resistance is very accurate. It is also a precise form of awakening that occurs when someone born outside of Buddhism becomes inclined toward Guanyin. There is a form of distance there, something similar to that of a bystander. When I think of Guanyin, or Chenrézik, it is as if I am thinking of a loved one, a loved one whose favor and blessing is also a long and precious inheritance. This is how it feels to me.
Lhamo Latso is a sacred lake. It sits in a U-shaped valley, like the crown of a buddha. It is the soul lake of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. When Wang Lixiong and I went there, we were all alone. We did not sit close to the lake. We were sitting on the slope overlooking the lake, a slope covered with stones and prayer flags.
Ian: In the photo you sent to me, you can see the valley was carved by a glacier. A glacier sat there for thousands of years, carving and compressing the earth. The lake, a mirror of blue sky amid all those jagged mountains, is a response to all of that pressure, maybe it’s even a reincarnation of that glacier. Now, I suddenly feel like this slope where you were sitting is a form of dharma throne. Maybe each stone can be understood as holding the potential of a dharma throne—even the stones the red-billed choughs were standing on.
Woeser: I don’t think the stones I sat on at the lake were a dharma throne. A dharma throne is sacred. I am vulgar, mortal, not qualified to sit on such a throne. I am traditional in this regard, and this tradition needs to be respected. This so-called dharma throne has spiritual and sacred meaning.
Red-billed chough (Pyrrhocorax phrrhocorax). Photograph by Israel Didham.
Ian: I am interested in the birds that took part in this vision. The red-billed chough is a corvid, related to crows and ravens and jackdaws, that has captured the human imagination across its range. Its Latin name literally means “Fire Raven” in part because its beak is red, but also because it is known to steal burning materials like lit candles. In ancient Greece it was the sacred bird of Chronos, the embodiment of time. You state in your poem that in Tibet, they are emissaries of the dharmapalas, the guardians of Buddhist doctrine. Does this bird’s name have any special meaning in Tibetan?
Woeser: I still don’t know what the meaning of skyung ka is in Tibetan, however, it must be interesting. The Tibetan name may be like a key to unlock a hidden meaning, something related to a terma.
Ian: I hope we can discover this meaning. What if its meaning is the very sound of its own voice? Birds play such important role in our visions of the future. When these two red-billed choughs landed next to you, what did it mean to you?
Woeser: For me, understanding this vision has been a long and tortuous process. Why did I hear this single sentence, “The skyung ka is an emissary of the srung ma, not a bad omen.” This has profound meaning. This is because in Chinese culture, crows and ravens are associated with times of disaster, and their appearance is considered unlucky and a bad omen. As a person who has been brainwashed by Chinese culture, I have not liked crows and ravens for a long time, and have considered them unlucky birds. However, in Tibetan culture, corvids are not inauspicious birds, on the contrary, they are propitious birds who are said to bring auspicious omens. The red-billed chough is considered to be an emissary of the dharmapālas, the appearance of a red-billed chough is unusual and has a prophetic auspiciousness.
Ian: Wait. Buddhist vocabulary is so complex, and I am trying to track these terms across Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese, and English. I just realized that Palden Lhamo, who is said to reside in Lhamo Latso, must be a dharmapāla. Is this correct? And if so, then these two choughs are her emissaries?
Woeser: Yes. Palden Lhamo is a mighty dharmapāla. And it is said that the chough is one of her emissaries. In the world of dharmapālas, these birds are minor dharmapālas. We are at Lhamo Latso, the lake of visions of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, observing a prophetic vision of the future. At the very moment that I saw the image of Chenrézik in the form of His Holiness rise from the middle of the lake, these two red-billed choughs flew to me. Of course, I realized this was unusual, and so I was very excited. After I returned to Lhasa, I consulted my Lama, Khenpo Rinpoche, who appears earlier in the poem, and he concurred, repeating what I had heard in my vision, “The skyung ka is a messenger of the srung ma, not a bad omen.”
Woeser standing on the slope overlooking the sacred lake Lhamo Latso. Photograph by Wang Lixiong.
Ian: I want to return to where we started. This poem meditates on the presence of the absence of the Dalai Lama in Tibet. And part of my mind keeps turning back to śūnyatā, the most fundamental concept of Buddhist philosophy. The title of the poem could be read “Śūnyatā, or Not Śūnyatā,” though I recognize you have stated emphatically that it is not to be read that way. Still, I have been wondering what the opposite of śūnyatā might be? Can it have an opposite? I wonder if Avalokiteśvara’s name might hold the answer. What if the opposite, or complement, might be “self-existence,” the zizai of Guanzizai.
Woeser: So-called śūnyatā in Buddhist philosophy refers to ultimate truth. The secular word “empty” has relative meaning, it is relative to “not empty,” and it describes things of this world. The secular world is a relative world, based entirely on matter. One equals one, two equals two. For instance, if a person’s body is here, then it is not empty (absent). And if a person’s body is not here, then it is empty (absent). The śūnyatā of Buddhist philosophy is pure emptiness, it is the essence of the Dharma. I don’t know if it has an opposite. Buddha nature or the fundamental nature of your own heart should be empty. Self-existence is a condition. Is there an opposite to śūnyatā? If there is an opposite, it would have to be the dharmakāya, the body of the dharma.
Ian: So magnificent. I suddenly see the sky-blue mirror of Lhamo Latso as a symbol of the dharmakāya and His Holiness emerging out of it as if coming out of cosmic dissolution. But he did not do this on his own. You and the vision are interdependent. This poem and the reader are interdependent. The throne is inseparable from the Dharma. We all form a matrix. I appreciate your distinction that self-existence is a condition. What we chose to do with this condition is who we are. I think one invitation of Chenrézik’s name is a question: how can you turn your heart into a dharma throne?
Woeser: I like this question: How to turn your heart into a throne? Who will come and sit in the heart-throne? I will think of my heart as an empty throne.
*The title of this poem presents an impossible challenge. In Chinese, the character 空 (pronounced kōng or kòng) has a multitude of meanings, including empty, absent, space, free time, sky, air. It is also the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit word śūnyatā, one of the foundational concepts of Buddhism. When I first translated this poem, I chose to translate it as “empty” so as keep the resonance with śūnyatā,which is often translated as ‘emptiness,’ as well as to maintain the parity with the three section titles. This is why I refer to the poem by the title “Empty or Not Empty.” However, as I talked with Woeser, I began to understand that the primary meaning was absent, specifically the absence of the Dalai Lama from Tibet.↩
Divine and mortal love intertwine in this poem by Li Hao, one of a handful of contemporary Chinese poets writing forcefully and overtly about Christian themes.
I invited you too soon
to my city, because I wanted to live
with you, because I wanted
to find in your songs
the Almighty’s power and love. Because I wanted
to know how you loved Him, and your
sweet former lives. I know your
bodies are the language the Lord bestowed upon me.
I see your unfamiliar riverbank
and walk toward you. I decide that I and the rows
of poplars will surround your place of prayer
in a circle wider than the eye can see,
and the quiet lawn is like the sky, invisibly
rippling. On the lambs’ pasture,
you play music, hover, fly out from the light
to protect our fallen loves,
the injured Father in our souls.
"天使们" © Li Hao. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Eleanor Goodman. All rights reserved.
In this poem about the Shuktilingka, Tibetan poet and activist Tsering Woeser writes about a world that has nearly been lost.
Watch a video of Tsering Woeser reciting her poem "Absent, or Not Absent" in the original Mandarin.
Dedicated to Gyalwa Rinpoche on his eighty-second birthday
1. The Empty Dharma Throne: Shukti
The Shuktilingka once stretched out
before the Potala Palace, lush and verdant.
Shukti means “dharma throne”;
and lingka means “park.”
It was filled with ancient trees whose branches twisted
counterclockwise like dragons
and mirrored in the ponds crossed by small bridges.
A little ways away stood a stele,
the Lhasa Zhöl Pillar,1 a tall, square column
recording imperial deeds from a thousand years ago.
The dharma throne in this park
must have been made with layers
of the flattest possible stone.
There would have been tufts of grass growing
from the crevices, and flowers would have bloomed,
and even more bouquets of flowers
would have been offered by visitors
who came each day from near and far,
the fragrance permeating every corner.
This vision, from my own imagination,
matches the memories of the older generation.
A few years ago, I was brought to this spot
by a son of old Lhasa royalty, a handsome man
with a shallow karmic reward.
He couldn’t bear the sight, covering his eyes,
he looked out through his trembling fingers
pointing through tears to where the throne had stood.
All vestiges of that park had been obliterated.
What had been a park was now a “public square,"2
filled with red lanterns, flagpoles, memorial monuments . . . .
And loudspeakers, large and small, blared
songs of propaganda. The melodies were old,
but the lyrics had been changed.
That honorable dharma throne, which existed before March 1959
—how did it disappear? What stories could it tell,
always vacant left waiting among the trees and flowers?
I have asked many people: Have you heard of the Shuktilingka?
A retired official from the local TV station burst
into tears. He asked, Can you understand
what it feels like to yearn for a memory?
Have you known the taste of heartbreak?
And he told me this memory from before the occupation:
In those years, His Holiness was a mischievous teenager.
People eager for a blessing would pass by
and could not help but raise their heads
and see the young Gyalwa Rinpoche3 sitting on the throne,
so young, his face like a smiling flower.
There is no way this man could forget the sight,
he wouldn’t forget over the course of his life.
I continue to ask in a low whisper:
Have you heard of the Shuktilingka?
I met a young man named Choenyi Jampel4
born in a farmer’s house
near the hometown of the great Songtsen Gampo.5
He had a great talent for painting,
able to depict a lost paradise he’d never seen.
Among his paintings, one stood out—one of the last
he completed just before his unfortunate death:
layers of emerald mountains, rolling
white clouds, a few houses that no longer survive,
and there, right in the center,
sat the completely empty dharma throne,
richly decorated, the heart’s dream waiting
like a balloon floating through desire.
2. The Empty Room: Gzim Chung
Five lilies bloom in the black of night.
At this late hour, one is finally able to witness
the most beautiful moments,
and so I want to make this offering:
lilies in a simple glass vase placed before a photograph.
There are some rooms, no, there are many rooms,
where even this photo is not allowed.
In this world there are those who are afraid
of a photograph. What kind of people are they?
Aren’t the intrepid materialists fearless?
The blooming lilies bring comfort.
In their dense fragrance,
I prostrate myself in prayer.
At least this room is no longer empty.
I have seen many empty rooms
in the Jokhang, in the Norbulinka, in the Potala Palace.
The honorific word for one of these rooms is Gzim Chung.6
One day, I encountered a monk I had known for many years.
He showed me a single key with a mark on it
attached to a large ring of keys.
Seeing we were alone,
we ducked our heads and entered a room
covered with yellow curtains.
The smell of incense was thick,
as though covering up another fragrance.
I did my best to identify it,
as if searching the past for a silhouette
of one who could not bear a heavy burden.
The silent monk pulled me back to reality,
and with his eyes indicated a wall
painted with images of bodhisattvas and other beings,
gouged by fierce bayonets.7
Before the empty dharma throne, a white khata
and a few complete Kashag banknotes,
steeped in meaning.8
A few days ago, I was sent a song
sung by two Amdo youths9 that goes:
“Under the sun, the child of yesterday frolics about.
He grinds the planets into pigment,
and with the pigment draws tomorrow—
he tosses all his problems to other people,
but the world is deaf and mute, it doesn’t make a sound . . .”
I think of a famous temple in northern Kham.
If you open the door unknown to others,
you will shed tears at everything you see:
a life-sized photograph of the sage sitting
on a beautifully carved sandalwood bench,
all kinds of offerings, each selected with care.
And inside that room, beneath the warm light of a crystal lamp,
a pair of golden slippers in front of a pure white bathtub.
3. The Empty City: Lhasa
Stand right here.
Each time I stand here in this city,
I am “surrounded by a strange fading landscape.”10
In my innermost heart,
there is a voice that refuses, that rebels:
If we are to achieve a reverse in course,
we must do it as soon as possible,
otherwise it will truly be too late.
I think of the deep autumn of that year.
Wait—no, it must have been early winter
when we carried a few strands of prayer flags,
a bag of powdered bsang,11 some fresh-ground barley,
a bottle of barley wine, and walked slowly along a ridge
four thousand meters high, our hearts beating faster and faster.
Before we left, the Rinpoche exhorted:
You must not talk, must not shout.
Sit down, pray that you may see the future.
To one side, the sunny slope,
where sunlight bestows a little warmth;
on the other, a slope in shade, covered in a shallow snow.
Lhamo Latso.12 This holy lake is the Buddha’s crown,
a pure mirror held by this U-shaped valley.
Filled with power, it’s so vivid it seems unreal.
Not a soul around its edges. Only me and my husband.
First, I offer the bsang and barley wine to Palden Lhamo.13
Then I tie prayer flags between the stones
to speak on our behalf.
We sit down, some distance from one another,
so as not to encroach on each other’s thoughts.
I focus my mind and gaze at the lake:
“Please grant me a vision of my fate.”
Suddenly two choughs appear.
One lands to my right, one to my left,
an un-choughlike cry and I turn my head:
black feathers, red beak and claws.
“The skyung ka 14 is an emissary of the srung ma,15
not a bad omen,” I seem to hear someone say.
The choughs pace back and forth.
They caw occasionally while I continue to gaze.
Gradually, an image emerges from the lake,
his smile is familiar in its compassion:
a vivid miracle, outside the realm of words.
When the sky grew dark, we returned hand in hand
to that city which has been empty for decades.
Along the way, two deer ran lightly by
as though we were within the Kalachakra mandala.
Could it be so?
Like so many of my people who have returned—
my heart is not empty. It is filled with love and hope.
July 4–5, edited July 6, 2017, Beijing
"空，或者不空——献给嘉瓦仁波切82寿诞" © Tsering Woeser. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Ian Boyden. All rights reserved.
Translator's note: What extraordinary karmic reward to share this life with Woeser, Eleanor Goodman, Andrew Quintman, Michael Richardson, and Jennifer Boyden, all of whom provided invaluable suggestions and insights, as well as copious amounts of delight as I translated this poem. My deepest thanks. And my gratitude as well to the National Endowment for the Arts for their support of the larger project from which this poem comes.
1. The Lhasa Zhol Pillar (ཞོལ་རྡོ་རིངས་ཕྱི་མ་) was erected in the late eighth century and describes deeds of the Tibetan Empire. It is also one of the oldest surviving examples of Tibetan script, a writing system attributed to Thonmi Sambhota, who was a minister to the founder of the Tibetan Empire Songtsen Gampo who is mentioned later in the poem (see note 6). ↩
2. The Shuktilinka was destroyed in 1965. The park and its wetlands were drained and filled, then covered with concrete, becoming what was then known as the People’s Cultural Palace Square (人民文化宫广场). This square was subsequently renovated in 1999 and renamed Potala Square. In 2002, it became the site of the monstrous Monument to the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, a thirty-seven-meter high structure commemorating the PLA liberation of Tibet in 1951. And in 2005, it was once again renovated to its current state.↩
3. Gyalwa Rinpoche is one of the honorific names of the Dalai Lama.↩
4. Choenyi Jampel was a very promising young artist in Lhasa. He was tragically killed in a car accident on March 29, 2011. He was only thirty years old.↩
5. Songtsen Gampo (སྲོང་བཙན་སྒམ་པོ) was an early seventh-century king. He is credited with founding the Tibetan Empire and introducing Buddhism to Tibet.↩
6. In the past, the Dalai Lama would stay at the Jokhang during the Buddhist ceremonies celebrating the New Year. He had a special room, which was known as Gzim Chung (གཟིམ་ཆུང་).↩
7. During the Cultural Revolution the Gzim Chung was occupied by Red Guards, members of the Opposition Party, and the People’s Liberation Army. During this time, the murals in this room were scratched by bayonets, and these scars exist to this day.↩
8. In 1911, the Tibetan government printed and distributed Kashag banknotes. They also minted gold, silver, and copper coins. Only an independent government can issue its own currency, so the presence of these banknotes is not simply nostalgic, they speak to a time when Tibet was independent.↩
9. The song is titled “Empty Room” and is sung by the Tibetan Patient Band (西藏病人乐队).↩
10. This is a line from the poem “For the Egyptian Coin Today, Arden, Thank You” by Raymond Carver, in No Heroics, Please: Uncollected Writings (Vintage Books, 1992).↩
11. Bsang (བསང་།) is a powder made of various aromatic plants and is used as an offering of purification.↩
12. Lhamo Latso (ལྷ་མོའི་བླ་མཚོ།) is the most sacred lake in Tibet. It is where visions are sought for the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama and is presided over by the the Dalai Lama’s guardian goddess Palden Lhamo. It is located in Gyaca County, Lhokha Province, to the southeast of Lhasa.↩
13. Palden Lhamo (དཔལ་ལྡན་ལྷ་མོ།) is the primary dharmapāla, or goddess of protection, in the Tibetan Buddhist Pantheon and is the guardian god of Tibet, Lhasa, and the Dalai Lama.↩
14. Skyung ka (སྐྱུང་ཀ) is the Tibetan name for the red-billed chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax), which is a species of corvid found across Tibet. Its dramatic red bill, loquacious vocalizations, and extreme intelligence have made it a powerful symbol in many cultures. Its Latin name means “fire raven” because it is said to be attracted to burning materials and to even fly off with lit candles in its mouth. ↩
15. Srung ma (སྲུང་མ། ) is the Tibeten word for dharmapālas, mighty deities who protect the Dharma. ↩
16. Chenrézik (སྤྱན་རས་གཟིགས།) is the Tibetan name for the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara.↩
A poem about suffering and the Divine by the Chinese poet Li Hao, whose first collection, The Tempest, was banned in China.
The clamor of the dead on the wall
spin in the lobes of my lungs
the vault of heaven’s many
Leviathan of my soul,
covered in knifepoints, making the heavens
rain down iron nails. Eternal light
strikes upon the earth’s altars.
Lord, I am foolish,
I am suffering, and my body,
like a spoon, here on this earth, sweetly scoops out
"'我要走向上主的祭台'" © Li Hao. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Eleanor Goodman. All rights reserved.
In these three poems from the collection Perhaps: Love Poems, Tibet-born poet Xi Wa explores her personal Tibetan Buddhist path.
1. Vimalaki Sutra
Simultaneously we sink into May
The scent of the locust tree bloom, the fragrance of enlightenment, falling
upon a single tendril from the vine of language
My seeming frivolity, my carelessness, cannot completely eclipse
our first encounter, when my heart was brushed atremble. Tangled. Insatiate . . .
Escaping the torrential rain, the mildew and rot beyond the open window
Our intimate conversation
swirls around basic truths, asanas, inner sight, and true nature
Two crystal streams converge in a deep pool . . .
I dare not use mortal eyes to contemplate you
much less my worldly heart to quantify the true meaning of your absolute body
As if I am serving in a temple, receiving the blessing
though my torso, swaying, distills
vague honeyed words, what seems like a test, what seems like an omission,
and what is diluted by off-the-cuff jokes
Aloeswood and the scent of myrrh, long invisible,
make my May lightheaded, my posture slouch.
Do they arise from your face and lips? Or do they arise from
me, among other Buddhist disciples, diligent yet half aware?
End the longing and waiting of these past years,
Wake up. I draw one foot closer to you, then a bit more
and an unfathomable karmic force
pushes me back to where I began. Causing longing even more longing, waiting even more waiting
Then in this meeting place, I knew
Vimalakurti: The reason for your sickness is my own, and that of all living beings.
3. Lamplighter Buddha
Digging open lightning, coal cinders, and other things of false appearance
Lamplighter, You reach straight to my inner heart
the basic root of the thing
As always, I bury myself deep in the dust
head to toe, my root hairs sense you, forgetting you’re already here
in fluid waves of wisdom, you offer this prophecy:
“You shall see . . .You shall be . . . You.”
Vanquishing the basest of happinesses and joys, I bend down
entering the kitchen where, day after day, I pluck and rinse
celery, fennel, bitter chrysanthemum . . . the profusion of leaves, the rot and scars
reordered and removed: delicacies enshrined on a momentarily empty dining room table . . . .
True, I am unable to follow you—Lamplighter
Thus I am dependent on my own finger,* it
preserves the line of my whispers, my spoken and intimate desires, all in worship of you—
your appearance of triumph and “greatness” alone, is sufficient to allow me
to persist, pointlessly, with my petty work in this world of dust
* A reference to the Buddhist analogy of someone mistaking the finger pointing at the moon as the object of regard instead of the light of the moon. It refers to someone mistaking the teachings as the object of regard instead of what they point to: the light of enlightenment.
You say: Look, even the birds preach the Dharma
Lowering my head on a long distance run, in a summer spanning over 60˚ of the earth’s surface*
from the media village to Olympic Park
on a path wide enough to seem like a thoroughfare
I know what I am facing now: the greatest heat wave in history,
misfortune, distortions of the mind
I hear birds calling,
but I don’t understand their gospel
I see Cymbidium, the “true heart orchid”
Could it be alerting me to an unexpected path
through the many misfortunes of the day?
My ear is grazed by the sound of the wind, grazed by the sounds of singing at the crossroads
“I am struggling, struggling to draw near to you
but before my eyes lies an interminable distance . . . .”
Amida, whether you have already opened yourself to me or not, I need not concern myself or look for proof,
I must lower my head, undaunted by this long run
I run by things that know me, I run by crowds that don’t
I run along the intersecting lines of an open palm, all the symbols, the distracting thought
And suddenly I am in a trance—your magnificent radiance
on the lone line of my travel, you were with me always, the way a shadow follows form
Amida, your hand holding mine, we head straight toward
this heat wave, misfortune, distortions of the mind . . . to the center
You say: Look, even the birds are preaching the Dharma—
stand apart from worldly things.
*The country of China covers 60˚ of latitude of the earth’s surface.
"维摩诘," "燃灯人," and "阿弥陀" from Perhaps: Love Poems © Xi Wa. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Chloe Garcia Roberts. All rights reserved.
The foundations of a house and a marriage are both under siege in this short story by Caryl Lewis.
She was taking the wet clothes out of the twin tub when she spotted the tile. She had rolled her sleeves up and lifted the damp clothes into the basket, ready to hang them on the line. She had kept the water from the first wash for the second load, and it was now clouded with muck and bits of fluff and grass seeds. She listened to the pumping of the machine, like a heartbeat driving out the dirt along with the water into the sink.
The machine had been a godsend, and Dai had been happy for her to have it. There had been no electricity in the house until the beginning of the sixties, and soaking Wiliam’s nappies in buckets had been a real chore. Eirwen had had to walk to the phone box at the top of the lane to call the shop and order it. She had been saving a little money here and there and the machine was bought cash in hand. She had heard that Rosemary at Tŷ Po’th and some others had to pay week by week, but Eirwen’s cheeks flushed at the thought of such a thing.
She turned and happened to look along the red and black tiled floor through the narrow kitchen, past the dining table and toward the grandfather clock that stood somber at the far end of the small room by the back door. Yes, there was a shadow there. She stopped where she stood, the wet clothes in her arms dampening her apron. It was her habit to scrub the floor every Saturday evening when Dai would walk over to the Red Lion. Without him under her feet, she could lift the chairs onto the table and run a basin of hot, soapy water and scrub it all clean. But today, although the tiles shone, and a pathway of light stretched over to her feet, there was a shadow at the edge of one tile.
She put the clothes down in the basket and walked toward the shadow. She stopped and looked down at the tile. Nothing. She pressed down on it with the sole of her foot. She moved her foot from one side of the tile to the other. Yes, it was uneven. She bent over and noticed how red the skin of her arms was from the washing. In fact, she had noticed of late that the skin on her hands was aging from being constantly in water in the milking parlor and the house. Rosemary next door rubbed hers with some kind of cold cream every night but Eirwen had laughed at her for being so silly. She felt the tile with her fingers. Yes, one side was coming up. She sat back on her knees and felt them pull.
As she put the clothes out on the line that hung between the old apple tree and the pear tree behind the house, she could think of nothing but the tile. She folded the clothes over the line, and when the basket was empty, she turned back to look at the house. As a child, she had been in the habit of coming here to see Dai. They had walked every step of the way to school together and later, at fourteen, worked on the same farm at Llain—she in the house and he in the fields. As one of eleven children, she was expected to marry him so that there would be one mouth fewer to feed at home. Her mother, being busy with the smaller children, was not much interested in Wiliam when he was born, and Eirwen felt that her visits brought her mother more trouble than pleasure.
She had been fortunate in both Dai and the house, and although he spent a good deal of time in the village, and she had usually finished milking and would be feeding the calves by the time he arrived home, he was great company for her. Eirwen looked at the small windows, which kept out the light and the heat, and noticed the young ash tree that had reached over to the hedge of the old house. It had caught her eye years before, a stubborn, alien sapling in the old garden. She lifted the basket and walked over to it. The trunk was straight and sturdy and the leaves fondled the roof at the back of the house. There was moss growing on the old slates here and there, and Eirwen had told Dai countless times that they needed cleaning.
Eirwen’s gaze followed the tree down to its base, and, to her amazement, she saw its gray roots pushing in underneath the house. She dropped the basket and felt panic rise in her breast. Then, without picking up the basket, she ran back inside. She looked again at the tile. A root had pushed through the old earthen floor and was determinedly lifting up the tile, damaging the surface. Eirwen heard the old clock strike three. Wiliam would soon be home from school, and it would be time to go and fetch the cows for milking, but she was unable to take her eyes off the dark shadow on the floor.
When Dai came home that evening, she told him about the tree as he cleaned out his pipe with his pocket knife. The tree would have to be chopped down, Eirwen suggested, but Dai flared up at her. He had been all day in the village seeing Jams about this and that. He wanted peace and quiet, not a whole lot of fussing about some bloody tree. He went and sat down in the sitting room by the fire to smoke his pipe.
Eirwen put Wiliam quietly to bed before going back to sit at the little table and stare again at the tile.
Over the years, the ash had grown, darkening the house still more. Its leaves filled the gutters, causing the dirty water to drip down over the whitewash on the back wall. Eirwen would have to fetch a ladder from the shed and try and clear them before tying a handkerchief round her head and whitewashing the old wall again. The wisps of hair around her forehead would be white by the time she had finished, and her shoulders would ache, but she would stand firm between the tree and the house. The tile was by now almost completely pushed out of place.
Sometimes, in the winter, when her cheeks burned from being pinched by the wind, Eirwen would lie in bed listening to the comforting sound of Dai’s breathing. But her dreams would be filled with the ash tree’s leaves, like hands, like dark talons destroying the house. The roots would seethe underground, strong and muscular, ready to burst through the floor and shatter the orderly red and black pattern of the chessboard of their lives.
Like his father, Wiliam did not have farming in his blood. He took no great interest and by the time he moved to town, the ash had darkened the back of the house altogether. Wiliam had a son himself, and although Eirwen had plenty of time to look after him, his wife worked too, Wiliam explained carefully, and it was more convenient for his mother-in-law to take care of the little one.
Now, the twin tub sat in the milking parlor, covered with straw. Because she had been so careful with it, the old machine had lasted twenty years, but, as with the empty milking parlor, things had moved on. Eirwen sat at the small table nursing a cup of tea. The oilcloth had been worn to a blurry white under her arms and Dai’s after the years they had spent sitting opposite each other. She heard the new washing machine humming quietly behind her in the old, narrow kitchen. She had laundered the collar of his white shirt clean and pressed the tongue of his black tie under the iron till it was shining and smooth. Dai would soon be home. The funeral was at one o’clock. She got up and went over to the stove to take a look at the meat. It was roasting noisily in the enamel tin. She closed the door and began to set the table. She went to the cupboard before turning and walking to the sitting room. She went to the dresser and opened the glass door. It had been polished clean. There, the best dishes shone—the ones the couple had received on their wedding day. She gathered them carefully and clutched them to her breast, carrying them to the table. She went to the drawer and took out a white cloth that had been starched into a small square and opened it into a streak of white along the table. The vegetables were boiling.
The service would go on till two and then he would have to go to the graveside. Then there would be the tea, of course. It was normally Rosemary who did the tea in the chapel, together with Marion from Llety Hen. Eirwen proceeded to set out knives and forks before lifting the meat onto a plate and pressing it in foil to make the gravy. Dai might have had too much tea to eat a meal like this, but he was very fond of a roast dinner.
At half past six he came home. He sat at the table with the clock behind him. The smell of dinner filled the house. He took off his tie and Eirwen asked him to go and change in case he made a mess of his best suit. He looked up at her. He rose to his feet and moved, before kicking the tile loose with one of his polished shoes. The two of them watched as it skimmed across the surface of the other tiles and ran square into the skirting board on the far side. Eirwen looked at him, afraid. There lay the root, naked and wild in the darkness of the earth. Dai lifted his head and looked at her.
“She’s gone,” he said.
Eirwen knew that the woman her husband had been having an affair with for over thirty years lay in the cemetery. Eirwen nodded at him. His skin was somehow paler against the black of his suit. Eirwen rubbed her tired arms with her hands and looked at him.
“It’s time to cut that tree down,” she said at last. He nodded, his face somewhat softened with age. “It won’t take long for the root to die back.”
The two of them listened for a long time to the ticking of the old clock before Eirwen turned to bring the supper to the table.
© Caryl Lewis. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by George Jones. All rights reserved.
A library porter is left alone on duty and plans to take advantage of it in this excerpt from Fflur Dafydd's novel The Library.
As he did every morning, Dan walked down the red carpet toward the entrance of the National Library, knowing that the whole world waited for him behind those doors. There was a beautiful stillness in this moment, a superiority which thrilled him as he walked along that strip of red, as though toward an audience hungry for his arrival. But once he opened the door, he found that he merely annoyed his audience, that they were impatient with him, that all they wanted to do was shuffle past him, and pollute that beautiful carpet with their ungrateful feet.
It was a thankless task, opening up a library. Those on the other side of the door didn’t realize how powerful he was; that he could choose to peep through that keyhole for hours, leaving them in the cold. Hoarding all the knowledge for himself. No one appreciated his power, or realized that he was, by very definition, an authority figure. But such was the nature of library-goers, Dan realized. They were locked away in their own worlds, living in the archives of their own minds. To these people, a porter was never going to be anything more than a guy who opened and closed a door. The one who let them in and let them out again.
One would expect that each day at a national institution brought with it new challenges. The bitter truth was that it did not—they were the same faces, every day; the same small mouths whispering their even smaller requests. Every morning, he’d be amazed by the fact that these people wanted to spend a clear, beautiful day inside a library, that they queued up in bright sunshine in order to nab their place in the dark. He had archived them into categories in his mind. Some of them were lifers: those in it for the long haul—long-term-library-lovers. Others were part-timers, sheltering in the darkness until whatever it was they were working on—that article, that PhD, or a family tree—was complete. Others were surfers, roamers, library loungers: those who came and went like the wind, who blew in because the library seemed like a better option, because a library was free, because it judged no one and was the world’s friend. Then there were the mappers: a special breed in waxed jackets and thick spectacles who came to pore over yet another medieval map of something long gone, or to stare at a patch of existing land on paper rather than experiencing it in the great outdoors. Those were the worst, he thought; those who chose to lose themselves in a library because it was safer than losing themselves in life, because here, they knew where the door was.
Which is precisely, Dan thought, where he came in.
Every morning, the library-goers pretended to give each other space on those steps, but once that door creaked open they would happily trample over one another in order to get to their chosen desks. They bickered every morning over a corner of a table, competing for certain patches of mahogany, complaining about the angle of a seat, the crookedness of a chair leg. They bemoaned the way the sun poured in through the tall windows and obscured their screens; some said that an angle of sunlight was detrimental to their thought process, that too much sun—or too little—impacted their creativity, that many a great idea was known to shrivel up in sunshine.
This was why Dan liked to have a bit of fun at their expense, especially at those who came at nine when they knew full well that the doors didn’t open until half past. His chosen victim today was the blonde girl who was compiling a study of all the nation’s firsts: the first strict-meter poet; the first language activist; the first woman in the country to be registered legally as a man. Primacy was simply her way of life. Her voice was the first to be heard every morning, she was the first face he saw when he opened the door. Her boyfriend, a rather second-rate creature with a lock of hair that closed like a curtain over his left eye, was usually dragged along behind her, his hand firmly in hers.
“Can I see your library card?” he asked her.
“I was here yesterday,” she barked at him, as other library-goers whooshed past her, a first, second, third, and fourth contender for the largest desk in the reading room.
“It’s for security purposes,” he said. She fumbled in her bag for the card. “We need to be careful these days. We’re living in the age of terror.”
“I didn’t bring my card. I didn’t need it yesterday, or the day before. Or the day before that, for that matter. Don’t you remember me? I’ve been coming here for six months!”
“No, sorry, I don’t,” he said to the face that was so familiar he’d seen her in dreams. “You’ll need to make a request for a day ticket. Over there, love.”
He tried to direct her toward the library reception but ended up touching her elbow, the tip of his finger catching the sleeve of her cotton print dress. Her skin swelled indignantly beneath it.
“Did you just touch me?”
Dan tried to move away, but it was too late.
“I think he just touched me inappropriately!” The girl turned to her boyfriend for support. “You saw that, didn’t you? He touched me indecently, almost . . . threateningly.”
“I suppose he did,” said the subordinate boyfriend. “A licentious touch . . . a dirty grapple.”
By now the library-goers had stopped in their tracks. They congregated around the prima donna.
“Just go get your ticket at reception,” he said, not wanting to let her win. “Then you can go in.”
“And make a sexual harassment claim while I’m there?”
She stared at him, her green eyes flaring.
“Just go in,” he whispered, defeated.
She flounced off, no longer concerned with him, cantering up the red carpet toward her table. Her lover stopped and lowered his voice.
“You got any . . . ?” His words dried up in the air.
“Not today,” Dan answered, moving him on before the next library-goer came too close.
“But you said . . .”
“Come and see me later, OK? At lunchtime.”
The boyfriend walked off. Dan sighed. Ungrateful little beggar. Nothing was ever enough for him. But then, Dan supposed it wasn’t the best idea in the world to start dealing drugs to students. Or at least, to this one, when his girlfriend was in the business of writing down anything that made anyone a maverick, a first-timer. Dan was pretty sure that the lockers he kept his stash in hadn’t contained that amount of skunk in the entirety of their shiny, veneered lives.
Things were usually quiet after the initial flood of visitors. By nine forty-five, there was hardly a soul to be seen. He stood by the empty lockers, opening and closing their doors, staring into the little rectangular shadows, pretending to be checking things, waiting for something to happen. Hoping for some kind of event or incident, just to shake up his day. They’d been training them recently—all the porters—to double as security guards. There was talk of a terrorist attack on the smaller countries, now that all the big ones had already been hit. But Dan knew it wasn’t coming his way. Not in this end-of-the line seaside town, with its one national institution on top of a hill. A library wasn’t a target, no matter how much they went on about it.
Today, his boss, known as the Arch Porter, was taking a group of colleagues down to the city for even more security training. He’d cherry-picked the ones he wanted to progress to the next security level, and in fifteen minutes, they would all assemble on the red carpet, hands in their pockets. They’d all be giving him this look—the look that told him not to get ideas above his station.
Dan didn’t want to get above his station. He was happy minding the station.
He knew he wasn’t really being left in charge. He was being left alone so that he could have the space and time to cock up. Everything Dan did could be watched via CCTV from the government buildings in the city. The excuse for leaving him behind was that he understood the technology; he could be responsible for linking them up.
“You’ll be fine, won’t you?” the Arch Porter asked, his mustache quivering atop his upper lip. “It’ll be a good opportunity for you, make sure you take advantage of it, prove yourself. It’s about time.”
Dan smiled back at him, knowing full well how he’d take advantage of it, how he’d prove himself. He knew how the day would go, or more to the point, how their day would go. Far from here, the Arch Porter would get drunk on free wine served up to him by the government and gorge himself on fresh seafood served up on a silver platter, a million dead eyes staring at him. He’d get to his feet and make a speech, he’d talk about the sophistication of a little security device in his hand that could lock people in as well as lock people out, and the porters and politicians around him would applaud like seals even if they weren’t really listening. Then, the First Minister would get up and go out and talk to the press—she’d talk about the nation’s institutions taking the future into their own hands, how they were safeguarding their heritage, their culture, she’d talk about how the nation was ready for an attack and protected against it. How they’d cut down on their carbon emission and how paper had become secondary to cultural preservation. And she’d be reading it all off a little teleprompter without thinking much about what she was saying, because she was still hungry—because seafood never really fills that hole in your stomach, at least not if you’re talking the whole way through lunch and sharing the table with greedy, good-for-nothing porters who don’t realize there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
Dan believed it had all started going wrong when they took away his keys. He missed the jangling of a good set of keys in his hand, the cold coupling of steel and skin. He liked the sound they made as he got nearer to a door; the way keys announced an arrival. They were macho little stick men in his hand, while the security device he used now was more like a virginal nun, singing a single note of openness that was so quiet, one barely noticed that the door had been unlocked.
Dan was constantly made to feel inadequate in front of the other porters. The Arch Porter had caught him smoking a spliff once around the back with a few research students (the second-rate boyfriend and his third-rate post-doc mates) and that had been it—he’d been singled out for constant reproval.
“I hope you haven’t forgotten, my boy,” the Arch Porter said, his stomach straining against his trouser belt. “That I trusted you, I gave you a chance.”
If only Dan could forget it. It was a constant weapon to be used against him; the way he had broken the trust so freely granted when he first came to work here. He knew that institutions did not hire people with criminal records; and that was something he needed to be grateful for. But he also knew they had been short-staffed at the time—that it made sense to drag the community-service-part-timer over to the interviews and force him to stay. People like Dan, they said, were used to institutions, and it made sense for him to substitute one establishment for another.
And in some ways, Dan thought, it wasn’t unlike prison at all. He was fed at regular intervals. He walked up and down the same old strip of corridor. He was treated coldly and apathetically by those around him. He spent days staring out of windows that were too high to properly see out of, wishing he were somewhere else.
The Arch Porter and his minions walked past Dan, one by one, out into the sunshine and into the white van that boasted the library and the government’s logos. Dan watched them on the CCTV camera behind his desk, mocking the self-important way the Arch Porter now carried himself; his head thrown back to emphasize his lack of tie, his new, crisp corporate shirt and blazer ruffling uncomfortably around his blubber. This was what happened when a country like Dan’s finally formed its own government; the funniest people were put in positions of power. He watched as the porters were guided into the van, one by one, before the white gloss of the van doors obscured them completely. The only creatures visible now were the Arch Porter at the wheel and the Head Librarian, who was now (Dan ascertained from another camera) approaching in her stiletto heels.
The Arch Porter shuffled out of the van to open the door for her, a gesture he knew she found distasteful but which she tolerated all the same. Once the Arch Porter had shut the door on her, he stared up at the CCTV camera, as if he knew that Dan was watching him. He raised his radio and spoke directly into it.
“We’ll be watching you, Matthews!” he shouted. “Don’t you forget that, OK? Now link those cameras the second we leave, do you hear me? The rest of them will be watching the library from the back of the van on their tablets.”
Dan smirked at the thought of what the porters in question would be watching on their tablets. It would not be him. Not really. It would be a version of him, taken from a few days ago.
“OK!” he replied. “Enjoy yourselves. Over and out.”
He heard another grunt before the final deadening click. He moved toward his desk and dialed the link to the government’s IT offices. He heard the familiar voice of Teleri, the CCTV officer, coming through the loudspeaker, a husky voice that spoke of city living. He knew that he was at a disadvantage, hearing only her voice each time while she saw his whole being, illuminated on a large screen in front of her. He was still expected to flirt into the unknown darkness. Although Teleri tried to keep her voice youthful and jolly, he could tell she was not young and there was a constant tremor in her voice that told him she was not really jolly, either.
“OK, sweetness,” she said. “What have you got for me?”
“They want to link conference room 340 to the library’s CCTV,” he said.
He heard laughter, the pretense of joy rattling in a windpipe.
“Don’t they trust you, sweetness? You must be very, very bad.”
“Why don’t you come here one day? Maybe then you’ll find out,” he replied, matching her performance, though it made him feel sick to his stomach. He could somehow make out her contours through his blindness, the rubbery sides of her, the blouse that was too small, wrinkling at the bust.
“I’ll wait till you come here,” she said, sounding faintly alarmed.
He heard a buzz as Teleri linked the cameras to the screens.
“Oh, I like your hair like that,” she said.
Dan froze. The footage from last week had come on sooner than he’d expected and now she was staring at another version of him with freshly cut hair, sitting behind his desk, looking down at his phone. To say another thing would ruin his whole plan. He watched his week-old self, hoping that something in his gestures would somehow correspond with Teleri’s conversation. The week-old him began eating an apple with gusto. He ate one every break time, remembering how jealous he’d been of apples when they were handed to him in prison, simply because they had come from outside and were free in a way he was not. They made him so depressed he let them rot on his windowsill. Now he could devour the little fuckers.
“Well I haven’t got all day to sit here and watch you eating an apple, sweetness, I don’t care how good-looking you are.”
And with that she was gone. His plan was set in place. He watched as the week-old Dan finished his once-free-now-dead apple and tossed it away into the future.
A future where there was no one watching him.
From Y Llyfrgell. © Fflur Dafydd. By arrangement with the author. English translation © 2019 by Fflur Dafydd. All rights reserved.
Llwyd Owen imagines a Wales where the Welsh language itself is a crime in this excerpt from his novella Iaith y Nefoedd (The Language of Heaven).
He opened his eyes.
He checked his phone.
“Shit!” Half past one in the afternoon. Not that he’d missed an important appointment or anything. Just half a day. Another one. Same as yesterday. And the day before. And the one before that too. Not that he can remember properly. Manon’s fault, for sure. And the booze. Not to mention the drugs, of course. A shitload of pills, fuck all thrills. He stared at the piss-yellow ceiling and tried to find the necessary energy to drag his body from the bed. He rolled his tongue around his mouth. It felt like sandpaper. Or a sun-dried slug. His teeth were covered in a layer of plaque so thick that he could almost feel the bacteria attacking his gums. He made a mental note to buy a toothbrush. If he could afford one, of course. He turned to face the curtain-covered window. The daylight was doing its best to penetrate the cheap material, but thanks to the lovely view of a narrow back alley and the wall of the neighboring building, the effort was all too much, even for the sun.
He got out of bed a little too quickly, his lower back on fire, making his whole body convulse. He ground his teeth. He breathed deeply and surfed the soreness; his eyes closed tightly to stop the room from spinning. The pain abated. For a split-second, he considered doing some stretches, but what was the point. He looked down, glad to see that he was still wearing yesterday’s clothes. Especially the socks on his feet. These days, putting on socks was one of life’s main challenges. That and making enough money to pay for the essentials. A new toothbrush, for example. And food. Not to mention his medicine of choice: whiskey and slimming pills.
After emptying his bladder, he came face-to-face with his own features. In the mirror, he looked much older that his forty-one years. Manon’s fault, for sure. And the booze. Not to mention the drugs, of course. Under a nest of unkempt curls, his eyes stared out at him from their caves. A lack of nutrition had caused them to start sinking into his skull. A common feature in the world of today, a decade after the vote. A world full of mayhem, where almost all hope had been lost, leading to almost daily disturbances and arson attacks across the city. A world where little old Wales had been isolated from the rest of Europe and anchored to England’s asshole, like a malignant tumor, beyond all redemption.
In the windowless kitchen, he reused yesterday’s tea bag to make a cuppa. Weak as piss. No milk or sugar. He used to take two sugars in his tea. Before the vote. Before the unnecessary and voluntary segregation. Before all of the predictions and warnings came to pass. Food rationing was now commonplace, while the goods for sale were so expensive that people like him could not afford them. Food banks are one of the country’s main industries now; having replaced actual banks, who fled the island like rats from a sinking ship. In line with their forewarnings.
He made his way to the lounge, crouching to pick up a letter from the floor near the flat’s front door. His right knee crunched, but his lower back thanked him. Gingerly, he sat in his favorite chair. The only chair. He picked up the remote, turned the telly on and, as he rolled the first fag of the day, bad news spewed from the screen. He watched the disturbing images of armies assembling on the other side of the globe.
America threatening China.
America threatening North Korea.
And Russia watching everything from the shadows with a sly smile on its lips.
He heard familiar words. Words that used to terrify him. But words that were so common these days that they’d lost all of their meaning and edge. The threat of nuclear war was very real, no doubt, but, considering all the desolation and despair outside his front door, it was very easy to ignore what was going on in the South China Sea. With the perpetual poverty and day-to-day violence, the incessant racism and xenophobia, part of him thought “bring it on” every time he heard another report about the inevitable apocalypse.
Ten years after the vote, everything had changed in the world of T. Lloyd Lewis and the country’s Welsh-speaking population in general. Where once there was honor and dignity, today they were forced to hide their true identity. Thanks to the power of the hatred that came to light as a result of the vote, the Welsh-speakers of Wales had now been marginalized, ostracized, and pushed to the edges of society, to such an extent that any semblance of a “Welsh-speaking community” had disappeared. This was particularly true in the city, although things were a little better in rural Wales. Apparently. You heard rumors of people meeting clandestinely to keep the language alive. To keep the fire burning. To pray, to sing, or just to have a chat. But the only sign of life that bubbled to the surface from time to time in the capital was the defiant pro-Welsh graffiti that would appear overnight. Of course, these words would soon be replaced by hateful, anti-Welsh messages, but at least some hope remained. According to urban legends, there were gangs on the loose that hunted the natives, burning any Welsh-language tattoos that they found before turning the unfortunate individuals over to the secret police. T was terrified that someone would clock the words to one of his favorite songs, which were inked on his left shoulder, before reaching for the blowtorch.
You don’t need a girl to break your heart,
When you live in Wales.
He grabbed the remote and turned the telly off in the middle of a report about the appearance of Comet Read in the sky. T could remember watching a few firmamental phenomena during his life. Comet Hale-Bopp in ninety-seven, in the company of his classmates. The solar eclipse of ninety-nine, when the whole country lost its collective mind for a few days and spent millions on special specs to watch the event. As he sparked his cigarette, he heard a loud bang on the door, which made him choke on the smoke, but he stopped himself from coughing up a lung because he knew exactly who was there.
“Mr. Lewis, I know you’re in there!” bellowed Mr. Smith, his landlord. “Mr. Lewis, this is getting out of hand.”
T owed him two months’ rent. Money he didn’t have.
He smoked his roll and waited for him to fuck off.
“I can smell you, Mr. Lewis.”
That made him smile. Thanks to the government’s austerity measures and cuts to the national budget, the whole country stank, especially urban areas such as this one. The streets were awash with litter, while the fires that burned every day polluted the air and the environment.
At last, the knocking and the shouting stopped. T rolled another fag and turned his attention to the letter on the coffee table. His nicotine-stained fingers looked like radioactive chipolatas against the envelope’s whiteness. He noted his publisher’s stamp in the upper right hand corner. This gave him a lift and filled him with hope. Momentarily, at least. He took a deep breath before proceeding, and prayed to a God he didn’t believe in for some good news.
However, he was soon overcome with disappointment.
Disappointment and shock.
He was disappointed by the total amount and shocked by the number of books he had sold during the past six months, since the release of his latest tome. The royalty statement noted that his novel, A Better World, had sold a measly fifty-two copies and, as a result, Gwalia Publishing had deposited £62.32 in his bank account.
Better than nothing.
But nowhere near enough to pay the rent.
His four previous novels were also listed on the statement, although none of them had sold a single copy. T knew that people had to prioritize, but he was still a little disappointed, especially when he considered the effort that went into writing them. But the simple truth is, when there’s no food on the table, no one’s really thinking a great deal about literature.
He remembered the excitement he felt when his first novel was published. Manon was with him all the way. Good days, full of creativity and love. Before the vote. Before the threats. Before the country imploded. Before Manon left him for another man. She was so proud of him as she watched from the front row at the launch party, smiling with delight, her eyes overflowing with admiration. But the respect she had for him soon wilted, as the novel failed to find an audience. And although the publishing company supported T through it all, Manon wasn’t so faithful.
There was a handwritten note attached to the statement, the words written in Welsh.
T, call in when you get the chance.
We need to have a little chat.
“J” for Joe.
The founder and head of the publishing company. An old man nearing eighty. A man with a vision. A man who believed in T and gave him a chance. A man who probably regretted that decision.
“J” for Jesus fuckin’ Christ!
A little chat. T can easily imagine the way it’ll go. The end of his career. But, with the end of the world around the corner, was there any point worrying about it?
He choked the stump in the overflowing ashtray.
He blew smoke toward the ceiling.
He coughed like an old man suffering from bronchitis.
He searched in the usual places for some powder and swore when he couldn’t find any. He pulled on his anorak, grabbed his rusty bike and left the flat, keeping his eyes peeled for his landlord. He heard shouting in the flat next door. A man and a woman really going at it—the pressures of life on the margins reaching boiling point. This reminded him of Manon’s last few weeks in the flat. Days of silence, punctured by unexpected emotional explosions followed by tears.
He still missed her.
He descended the stairs of the old Victorian house, which had been divided into four flats, opened the front door, and stepped outside. The drizzling rain made him stop on the stoop, where he considered going back inside. After all, he didn’t have to go and see Joe today. The note was pretty vague. He could return to his flat and . . . and . . . what exactly? Watch telly? Go back to bed? Hang himself? Fuck that! Right then, the sun tore through the clouds to tickle T’s milk-white skin. He smiled as a rainbow appeared over the roofs of the terraced houses opposite. He hadn’t seen anything as beautiful in a long time. In fact, he couldn’t remember the last time he saw a rainbow. He almost cried, but in the end the spectacle lifted his spirits and spurred him on.
T lived in the middle of the city.
By the river.
By the stadium.
A nice place. At one time in the not-too-distant past. But now, the city was like a dystopian scene from one of T’s novels, not a nation’s capital. Or a region, as was now the case. Cycling around town these days was a little like playing a game of real-life Mario Kart. You had to avoid all types of obstacles—human, natural, and man-made. In fact, it was almost impossible to go anywhere without getting a puncture. Litter covered the ground, and nobody came to clear it away. Glass. Cans. Paper. Plastics of all shapes and sizes. Everything being pushed around by the wind, piling up in corners and collecting down alleys. T could remember the political and social campaigns to create “plastic-free communities,” and the endless stories of plastic islands floating in the oceans, laying waste to aquatic life, stealthily and relentlessly.
The vote buried all hope of reversing the situation.
In fact, the vote buried all hope.
He crossed the bridge and looked down at the brown water flowing slowly toward the barrage. He could remember swimming in the river when he was younger, some four miles upstream from here, by Radyr Weir—the water full of fish, herons and kingfishers hunting them in the reeds. But the birds won’t go near the water these days. The gulls had moved permanently to the built-up areas, slaying every pigeon that stood in their way. T didn’t have a clue what happened to the ducks, swans, and cormorants. All he knew is that they’d disappeared.
There are people everywhere, and no cars on the roads, thanks to the fuel shortage—another knock-on effect of the vote. The shortage was going on four years now, with no end in sight. The only vehicles you saw today were owned by the rich and powerful, the police or the armed forces, when things got out of hand. The situation had no major impact on T’s existence, mainly because he’d never owned a car, although the fuel shortage had led to many riots, disturbances, and deaths, not to mention the damaging, and in some cases fatal, impact on businesses and the economy in general.
As T approached the castle, the former home of a pride of concrete animals peeping over a wall, which had been demolished and destroyed in the not-too-distant past, he saw a pack of wild dogs watching him from the shadows of the ancient trees.
Seven pairs of eyes, staring in his direction.
Seven tongues licking their lips.
Seven hungry bellies.
He got the hell out of there, as fast as his legs would take him.
The castle walls were covered in graffiti. The local authorities completely incapable of stopping the practice or even cleaning the ink off the elevations. One piece of art in particular caught T’s eye.
He turned the corner and aimed for the civic center, which had long lost its sheen and grandeur, thanks mainly to the graffiti that covered the walls, but also because of the tent city that had established itself on the lawn in front of the city hall and national museum, where T could remember watching Chumbawamba perform live a lifetime ago. The smell that rose from the tent city was bad enough to make T retch, so he put his head down and kept going.
Joe lived about six miles away, on the slopes of the mountain that rose like a turtle’s shell beyond the motorway, to the north of the city center. But before reaching his destination, T had to cycle through the area where the city’s student population used to live, before the vote changed everything. All of the flats were empty now. Well, they didn’t house students anymore, although every room was occupied. To the rafters, too. The tent dwellers would kill for the opportunity to move into one of these blocks. The Beverly Hills of the city’s homeless population.
T struggled on to the suburbs. He cycled through the area where he grew up, although he barely recognized the place. The green lawns and the glistening cars had long gone. And in their place: tall fences and barbed wire, security cameras and signs warning potential home invaders of the electric nature of the fences. He saw bars over windows and mean-looking dogs guarding most properties. He was glad that his parents had died before the world turned to shit.
He passed the home of one of his childhood friends and remembered playing footy in the street. He recalled a sense of community. He remembered being happy.
“No cycling!” He heard a voice from behind a bush, and then saw a man in his sixties running toward him waving a spade above his head. “Can’t you read?”
T pedaled away from the loon, his heart beating fast and his eyes looking around for a No Cycling sign. He couldn’t see one anywhere. Madness. Another common side effect.
He crossed the bridge over the motorway. A graveyard to a bygone era. Abandoned vehicles as far as the eye could see. To the horizon and beyond. Left to rust when the fuel ran dry. He watched a human form move between the vehicles and then noticed faces staring out from behind the dusty windscreens. The homeless had moved in here too. Either that or a zombie apocalypse was about to start.
T could see smoke rising from a chimney in the trees. This was his destination. His salvation. Less than half a mile away. He tried pedaling up the hill, but gave up and pushed, keeping one eye over his shoulder at all times. Soon, he was out in the countryside, where nature was busy reclaiming the land—trees, hedgerows and grass growing wildly all around.
He was soaked in sweat by the time he reached the estate’s entrance, and he stopped for a rest before pressing the button. His breathing slowed as the thunder rose. A low rumble, drawing nearer. He grabbed his bike and hid behind an ancient oak, where he watched from the undergrowth as an armored truck drove in his direction, with one man behind the wheel and another beside him holding an M16, the rifle’s muzzle pointing out of the open window, ready to fire, ready to kill.
"2026: In the Beginning" © Llwyd Owen. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by George Jones. All rights reserved.
With The Wind That Lays Waste, Almada may have invented an entirely new literary genre, something that could be called Southern Cone Gothic.
Reverend Pearson and his teenage daughter, Leni, travel the forgotten towns of rural Argentina spreading the good word. When their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, they are towed to the closest mechanic shop, run by Gringo Brauer with the help of his assistant, Tapioca. The repair is expected to take some time, so the father and daughter seek shade from the sweltering heat among the landscape of mangled cars. Tapioca and Leni are both sixteen years old and although they never speak of it, both are marked by the loss of their mothers. Reverend Pearson and Gringo Brauer share a connection to the road. The preacher is in constant movement as he travels back roads saving souls; the mechanic stands in place, receiving the twisted remains of the road’s latest victims.
Ever confident that the Lord has placed him exactly where he needs to be, Pearson is happy to wait patiently in this rustic setting after meeting Tapioca, “a pure soul” who seems to have been raised in ignorance of God’s transcendent powers. To Brauer’s annoyance, the Reverend begins to work his evangelical magic on quiet, sensitive Tapioca.
This minimalist dramatic nucleus sets the stage for Selva Almada’s slim debut novel, The Wind That Lays Waste. First published in Argentina in 2012, it shot Almada to prominence after being highly praised by critics, most notably the influential Beatriz Sarlo, who called it “eccentric” and “original” for its ways of playing with the language. In the seven years since, Almada has established herself as a well-known name in contemporary Latin American writing.
The theme of family dysfunction is one that appears throughout Almada’s work and the two families portrayed here are no exception. Leni respects her father for his ability to move crowds of worshippers yet has little patience for him. She dreams of leaving their lonely nomadic life to go in search of her mother, whom the Reverend left behind at some rural outpost. Tapioca may or may not know that Gringo Brauer is likely his father. The boy met the mechanic for the first time at age eight, when his mother dropped him off at the shop and never returned. Like Leni, Tapioca yearns to reunite with his mother. Part of his attraction to the life offered by Reverend Pearson may lie in the promise of visiting the city where his mother went to find work all those years ago.
Flashbacks to Reverend Pearson’s past and fragments of his sermons serve to break up the linearity of the narrative. In one powerful scene, the pastor, moved by the Lord, pulls a woman to the front of the church, begins to bite at her dress, writhing like a snake, until he grabs between his teeth something black and slimy, reeking of the Devil, and spits it out. Chris Andrews’s translation perfectly recreates Almada’s clean prose, centered around action and materiality, her elegant descriptions, as well as her measured pace. When asked in a forthcoming interview about the process of translating this novel, Andrews mentioned the unique challenge posed by Reverend Pearson’s sermons, which “should sound both formulaic and persuasive, because Pearson is doing his shtick again, but he has genuine talent (when he’s in full flight even the cynical Leni feels her resistance melting away), so I hope that the rhetorical mechanisms are visible but animated by a perceptible fervor.”
As the story flows smoothly from past to present, in and out of each character’s head, a storm brews in the parched dusty field around the mechanic shop. The humans are oblivious, but the dog smells the ensuing storm:
The smell of the depths of the forest. Not its heart but something much deeper, the bowels, you might say. The smell of the earth’s dampness under the excrement of animals, the microcosm seething there beneath the dung: tiny seeds, minuscule insects and blue scorpions, the lords and masters of that little dark plot.
This dramatic passage serves as a good example of Almada’s forceful descriptions, which often depict nature as somehow wiser, more perceptive than man. A torrential downpour forces the adults and teens into close quarters. The tension between Pearson and Brauer comes to a head. More than differences of faith, two conflicting worldviews are in dispute. The preacher’s life is one of constant performance. He is known far and wide for his ability to whip large groups into a state of frenzy. The mechanic, strong and stoic, almost a hermit, is grounded in the land and has no time for religion, focused instead on the practical concerns of his wrecked cars and his dogs.
Leni is the only female character in the story (even the dog is male), a lone girl trapped in a man’s world. Selva Almada is an outspoken feminist, and she infuses her stories with a critical view of the patriarchy. In an interview about her work in El Espectacular, she states: “When a writer has a commitment to certain issues such as gender violence or feminism, in one way or another that’s going to find a way into their texts.” Leni has internalized conventional, submissive gender roles. She is eager to do domestic chores because she doesn’t get many chances on the road to practice what she sees as her womanly duties. Her largest act of rebellion is listening to the radio on her Walkman instead of the Christian tapes her father thinks she’s playing. When Gringo Brauer and Reverend Pearson both support Tapioca’s right as a young man to exercise his free will but immediately dismiss the choice Leni has made for herself, she accepts that the only valid decisions are those taken by men.
With The Wind That Lays Waste, Almada may have invented an entirely new literary genre, something that could be called Southern Cone Gothic. The narration is tied to a landscape that is proudly Argentine but the story weaves in elements typical of the gothic writing of the southern United States, such as rural isolation, oppressive heat and invasive dust, decay, fire-and-brimstone religious fervor. Flannery O’Connor, master of the Southern Gothic, states in Mystery and Manners: “The novelist always has to create a world and a believable one. The virtues of art, like the virtues of faith, are such that they reach beyond the limitations of the intellect, beyond any mere theory that a writer may entertain.” Through sparse, monochrome scenes, Selva Almada creates a believable and powerfully visual world that transcends the page.
A new anthology collects a wide range of writing inspired by the Portuguese city, from Fernando Pessoa and José Saramago to authors from former colonies like Kalaf Angelo and Orlanda Amarílis, but it leaves out some key short-story writers.
Lisbon Tales is part of a long-running series of anthologies published by Oxford University Press seeking to collect some of the best writing set in or inspired by notable cities around the world and present it to an Anglophone audience. The addition of the Portuguese capital to this editorial project is a timely one as the city becomes an increasingly popular destination for foreign visitors.
The selection of stories in this volume indicates a wish to represent a variety of visions of the city, with the translator citing “quality of writing” as the prime criterion for inclusion. Fourteen pieces are included, dating from the late nineteenth century (represented by the well-known cosmopolitan figure of Eça de Queirós) to the present day (with the final two contributions being blog posts by the Angolan writer and musician Kalaf Angelo). The genres and nationalities included are diverse, featuring an excerpt from the Nobel Prize Winner José Saramago’s travelogue Journey to Portugal and a short story by Orlanda Amarilis, a woman writer from Cabo Verde.
There are many fine inclusions here, with excellent stories by authors who will be largely unknown in the English-speaking world: two writers from former Portuguese colonies in Africa (Amarilis and Angelo); the long-term exile José Rodrigues Miguéis; the political dissident Soeiro Pereira Gomes (much of whose work could only be published in clandestine fashion under the Estado Novo dictatorship); and the contemporary figures of Teolinda Gersão, Hélia Correia, Mário Dionísio, and Mário de Carvalho. The latter's story “The Collectors” was my own personal favorite within this volume for its credible and beguiling portrayal of the fantastic within a recognizably contemporary setting. Among the other most striking stories were “Lost Refuge” by Soeiro Pereira Gomes, where the initial depiction of miserable living conditions on the fringes of the city is soon overtaken by the all-embracing angst of the political dissident seeking constantly to cover his tracks while continuing in his struggle, and Amarilis’s “Cais do Sodré Station,” which flits between the protagonist’s memories of her long-lost Cabo Verdean homeland and the realities of her life in Lisbon, leading to the eventual realization that she can never fully belong in her present environment nor truly identify any more with her homeland. In this story, then, the railway station as a point of transit comes to represent the main character’s painful inability to emerge from a state of in-between-ness: neither fully Portuguese, nor fully able to identify with her homeland.
Nonetheless, while the choice of stories selected for this volume will clearly be to some extent a question of personal taste, the nebulous formulation of “quality of writing” to justify inclusion in this collection remains less than convincing. In her introduction, the translator Amanda Hopkinson regrets that “the short story is not a particularly indigenous form” in Portuguese-speaking countries, but one may ask then why such notable writers of concise and compelling fictional accounts of Lisbon life as Maria Judite de Carvalho, Irene Lisboa, Lídia Jorge, and José Cardoso Pires (to name but four obvious candidates) have been omitted, when many of the tales included could not be described as short stories at all (and when one writer is represented by two pieces). There is, in fact, a long tradition of the short story in Portugal, but many of the finest examples of the genre have been published (initially at least) in multiple-authored anthologies or journals, where the authors’ identities do not achieve the prominence given to the novel; yet some of the most inventive and experimental writing in Portugal is conducted precisely in the form of short fiction.
The choice of a tantalizingly short excerpt from Eça’s Alves & Co. gives the impression that this author is represented more out of a sense of obligation to his reputation than because this particular story was well suited to this volume, but even if Eça is regarded as essential (as a result of his international reputation) it remains unclear why, for example, the full text of his masterful short story “José Matias” was not chosen instead. The story that represents the equally canonical figure of Fernando Pessoa (taken from the chest of miscellaneous manuscripts discovered after his death) is also incomplete and not among his best work on the city; perhaps it might have been better to choose an excerpt from The Book of Disquiet, where (contrary to the translator’s insistence that his portrayal of Lisbon is “characteristically free of description of the external world”) the life and scenery of the city are often represented in vividly recognizable forms. On the other hand, the inclusion of Agustina Bessa-Luís (largely associated with the rural north of Portugal) seems peculiar in that there is no explicit allusion within her story at any point to a setting in the capital, and it is as likely to be based in Porto as in Lisbon.
The translator’s introduction indicates a particular focus on writers from the Salazar dictatorship of the mid-twentieth century, a dark period in Portugal’s history, following the tone set by the rather drab black-and-white cover image of a solitary woman on a bleak-looking city staircase. While the stories chosen all have their merit, the mixture as a whole could perhaps have displayed greater variety in character and tone. I longed for stories reflecting in some way, for example, the exuberance of the June processions and festivities of the cidade triste e alegre (“city both sad and joyful”) celebrated by Pessoa’s famous heteronym Álvaro de Campos.
The rendering of the stories in English is fluent, appealing, and (as far as I could tell in the case of those texts with which I was already familiar in Portuguese) faithful to the original, with helpful explanatory footnotes added when required. It might have been useful, however, in making sense of the powerful conclusion to Saramago’s chapter on Lisbon to have clarified that the Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo whom the author wished symbolically to propel into hell was the very same Marquês de Pombal mentioned at the beginning of the final paragraph who was responsible for overseeing the reconstruction of the city after the 1755 earthquake.
There is much to enjoy in this collection, and there would undoubtedly be scope for a further volume dedicated to Lisbon in this series; certainly there have been many writers, Portuguese and otherwise, throughout the centuries reflecting on this fascinating city. A comparison with the companion Barcelona volume suggests that the section dedicated to further reading about the city could also have been expanded somewhat. But the reader who wishes to discover Lisbon through fictional writing in English will still find much to savor; I would simply suggest that, for any second edition, the translator and publishers attempt to add some ingredients to enrich the variety of the offering.
The Spanish author and Man Booker International nominee elides the distance between novel and memoir in a book that confronts the killing of her grandfather by the ETA and her mother's death from cancer.
I can feel that other day running underneath this one
like an old videotape . . .
—Anne Carson, “The Glass Essay”
Calendars add a particular cruelty to grief. The annual recurrence of a month crossing paths with a number can make the wounds of loss feel present again. Gabriela Ybarra’s The Dinner Guest, translated by Natasha Wimmer and published by Transit Books, is full of such moments of remembrance. The past—personal and collective—haunts the present in this novel, returning dutifully on regular occasions. “I believe dates are important; anniversaries must be marked,” Ybarra writes. “My mother died on a Tuesday, and I remember her every Tuesday. My mother died on the 6th, and I think of her every 6th.” The anniversary is condensed, experienced at the smaller scales of weeks and months. These regular intervals are mnemonic devices, allowing us to infuse order into what seems to just happen. They create a poetic meter in the flux of life.
The dinner guest of the title corresponds to the smallest such unit of repetition: “The story goes that in my family there’s an extra dinner guest at every meal.” This guest comes every evening, eats with the family or at least inhabits the place that’s been set for him. And sometimes he makes a scene: “Every so often he appears, casts his shadow over the table and erases one of those present.” Death, personified by the invisible specter sitting across the table, is an insistent presence at dinner, but he’s also unpredictable, moved by a logic of things unknown to us: whenever he likes (“[e]very so often”), he takes someone.
This guest is present from the novel’s first pages, and thus Ybarra establishes early in the narrative a contrast between the regular drip of life, the consistent rhythms of days and weeks and months, and the contingency that threatens to disrupt this order. Death is the ultimate such threat, a conviction that seems present throughout the pages of The Dinner Guest—pages we are explicitly invited to read in relation to the author’s own biographical reality. In a preliminary “Author’s Note,” Ybarra identifies the events of the novel with real moments in her family history, though without insisting on a direct, one-to-one correspondence between words and world. Rather, as she describes the research and imaginative labor that underlie her writing process, she seems to elide the difference between outside and inside, between author and narrator. Such distinctions dissolve into something more elemental, an imaginative writing that resembles in turn a documentary, a memoir, or a novel, suggesting perhaps that we all occupy the function of narrator in the lives we believe ourselves to be authoring.
The first part of the book is dedicated to reconstructing the kidnapping and murder of the narrator’s paternal grandfather at the hands of ETA, the Basque separatist group known for its use of high-profile terrorist attacks, in the late seventies. The novel then shifts its focus to the illness and eventual death of the narrator’s mother. It is the latter death that seems to most fully insist on the randomness of life’s tragedies: “Before my mother’s death I lived as if the normal thing was to die of old age,” we read toward the novel’s conclusion. “Now I believe that the standard is to die before one’s time, like my grandfather Javier, like my mother, or like a friend of a friend who was hit by a car that ran a red light on the Castellana. An untimely death is always violent.” All deaths, we might extrapolate, are untimely.
In this formulation, Ybarra draws a connection between the two deaths that are the novel’s focus, besides adding a third one—that of the friend of a friend who died in an automobile accident. This connection helps elucidate a main aspect of the narrative’s structure: its coupling of the death of the grandfather in the late seventies to the death of the mother in 2011. How are the two deaths related? The kidnapping and execution of Ybarra’s grandfather result from the political motives and strategies of ETA and reflect her family’s historical prominence in the public life of the Basque Country. Her mother’s death, from a cancer that appeared to be in remission only to return swiftly and almost invisibly, might be seen to occur in a different realm, disconnected from the world of politics. Why, then, are they joined together as the axes of this novel?
One reason may be that Ybarra wants to challenge the distinction I have just suggested—between death due to political violence and death due to illness. The two, after all, are not unrelated. Cancer becomes political once you consider environmental determinants and disparities in treatment, as do many other illnesses, just as overtly political causes of death like war and terrorism have devastating effects on the health of families and individuals, besides conditioning, to a large degree, our notion of what a family is and what it’s for. Perhaps by joining together these two realms, Ybarra wants to show how they overlap and blur together.
More clearly, though, this narrative technique underscores the role of imagination in memory and perception. Such an interpretation would be consistent with the explanatory note that Ybarra includes at the novel’s opening, where she describes the book as “a free reconstruction of the history of my family,” in which the first part, especially, relies on documentary research, the imperfect recollection of conversations overheard, and the creativity inherent in deciding when one version of things is preferable to another. All memory is, to some degree, imaginative; Ybarra’s novel seems to assume this assertion to be the case, straining to get the past right but without believing that it can be known in itself, independently of the creative act of storytelling. “Often, imagining has been the only way I’ve had to understand.”
And this is the case not only with past events. The second, longer part of the book focuses on the illness and death of the narrator’s mother in the near-present. Here, too, what stands out is Ybarra’s portrayal of confusion, or at least incomplete knowledge, in which metaphor, often visual in nature, is essential to organizing perception. The suggestion seems to be that even as events are happening we are often unaware of what they are or what they mean. Almost immediately after the narrator learns that her mother’s cancer has silently metastasized, a friend visits Ybarra in New York and they go out to get something to eat:
While we were on our way to the deli the earthquake hit. A tremor of magnitude 5.9 on the Richter scale was rocking the east coast of the United States. Outside we didn’t feel it, so I talked on, oblivious of tectonic plates, and my friend smoked, indifferent to the movements of the earth. In Washington the Pentagon was being evacuated, the airports had just been closed, and the foundations of Manhattan’s skyscrapers shuddered, knocking over the coffee cups of office workers. Still, the only tremor that I felt that afternoon was in my head.
This experience encapsulates many of the main points of Ybarra’s nuanced reflection on life, death, and narrative: what we perceive is partial, what we remember is imagined, and when we recount our experience, we make use of poetic devices like metaphor. The earthquake shakes the earth, whether we know it or not, and as it happens, something resounds within her head, a feeling she describes as a “tremor,” as if borrowing from the earth a lexicon that might correspond to her grief and shock.
Perhaps it is because we seek to find order, poetic or otherwise, in such experiences that we insist on anniversaries. Despite the pain of losses remembered, there can be comfort in the regularity of marking time. And yet this comfort is evanescent, always about to dissolve, for the world ultimately doesn’t care for our rhythmic requirements. Hence death. A significant accomplishment of The Dinner Guest is to portray the act of seeking, imagining order in our lives and deaths, all the while knowing that it will inevitably be interrupted.
The Turkish writer of Kurdish descent has been jailed since 2016. The stories in Dawn can be read as a series of missives written by Demirtas from the inside, home to so many of the Turkey's best and brightest, dissenters who have refused to bow down to Erdogan’s demands.
The purge has been systematic and unrelenting. In the past few years, as Turkey’s strongman Recep Erdogan has consolidated his power following a failed coup attempt in 2016, thousands of dissenting politicians, activists, intellectuals and university professors have either been imprisoned or forced into exile. Newspapers, literary magazines and other forums of expression and public debate have faced censorship and scrutiny, with many editors harassed for content that does not toe the Erdogan line.
Democracy as Turks knew it has been sliced and diced, diluted and distorted, and Selahattin Demirtas has been in the middle of the massacre. A member of the Turkish Parliament and co-chair of the People’s Democratic Party, Demirtas was arrested in November 2016 under charges of disseminating “terror propaganda” and thrown into a maximum-security prison, where he remains to this day. Dawn marks his debut as a fiction writer and it reportedly sold more than 200,000 copies in Turkey. It is a book of poignant and prescient short stories which can be read as a series of missives written by Demirtas from the inside, home to so many of the countries best and brightest, dissenters who have refused to bow down to Erdogan’s demands. Literature and politics, in Demirtas’s view, are both avenues of contention. Both, he states in the preface to his book, are “expected to create meaning and to observe their societies closely and reflect upon the issues that the societies face.”
All the stories in Dawn are examples of this very close and keen observation. “The Man Inside” is an imagined exchange between the narrator and a pair of sparrows that nest inside the prison. It is a curious and sparklingly original rendition; the male sparrow, an exceedingly patriarchal sort, is upset at Demirtas’s offers to help the female. The female lays eggs, an item banned in the prison, a seemingly small event with larger implications, hinting at the inherent feebleness of repression and suggesting that “life will always prevail.” Eventually, some thugs—“inspectors from the Department of Nesting Code Enforcement”—show up. But the adroit, stalwart female refuses to give them access to her precious babies. In her actions, first building a nest and then guarding it, Demirtas gives us a feminist sparrow: unafraid, unrelenting, and eventually victorious.
The feminist theme, of women doing the heavy lifting, continues throughout Dawn. There aren’t always victories, but there is bravery. “Seher,” the title story, tells of a young woman who agrees to go on a date with a colleague from work, despite such interactions being forbidden. The man and his friends kidnap and rape her, leaving her bloody and bereft. This is not the only cruelty in the story. When her father learns of what has happened, he has his own moral purity and community standing to defend, ones that leave no room for forgiveness or empathy, for errant daughters who end up raped. The now “tainted” daughter is taken to a field and killed in the name of honor. As Demirtas puts it: “One evening in a forest, three men robbed Seher of her dreams. One night in an empty field, three men robbed Seher of her life.” The story presents the wretched cruelty of patriarchal power, the violence it inflicts on women’s bodies. Everyone from Seher’s mother to her little brother are complicit, enacting different parts of the murder—mute, submissive, and unendingly cruel.
Many of the stories in Dawn plumb the depths of such societal cruelties, the immovable institutional power of cultural mores that prescribe that women should be “pure,” that men must prevail over women, that the truths of the individual must be discarded in mute obeisance to edicts of oppression and repression. One of the collection’s most remarkable tales presents the story of “Nazan the Cleaning Lady.” She takes the bus to work every day, but her attention is drawn to the cars surrounding her in traffic. Her father taught her that cars can reveal many things about the people driving them, and a look through the bus window is all it takes for Nazan to spot the nuances of Turkish society in the automobiles going by. She finds herself one day in the midst of a political demonstration, while trying to get to work. Struck by a projectile and left bleeding, she ends up in an ambulance and then a hospital. Her physical wounds are tended to, but neither a lawyer nor the doctor can save her from a prison sentence, unthinkingly imposed despite the fact that she was only a bystander caught in the mix. The turn comes unexpectedly at the story’s end, when Nazan ponders the lessons to be taken from her predicament: “Being in here I’ve come to see my neighborhood in a completely different light. And while I may not be in prison much longer, these six months have been enough for me to get to know myself. And there’s an important lesson I’ve learned in here: if you walk with courage and determination sometimes you can move faster than a car.”
The stories in Dawn are indeed experiments in exposing how the world appears in “a different light.” The lives of cleaning ladies and office workers and sparrows are all angled in such a manner that the truths within them are brought into the open. Ordinary people contain multitudes. In excavating them, Demirtas reveals the dissenters and the executioners among them, along with the intransigence of bureaucracy that can engulf and enervate the soul in captivity. It is one thing to observe oppression at a distance, in the lines of newspaper articles. It is quite another to see its impact on ordinary lives captured in such evocative prose. Dawn proves Demirtas’s own pronouncement regarding the similarity between the politician and the writer; here is rebellion in literary form, the cost and cruelty of dissent laid bare and open. In times of trouble, the telling of truths can best be encased in the half-truths of fiction, the author’s act of subterfuge forgiven for its courage.
From interview to collage, from poetry to prose, from the 1950s to the 2000s, this volume edited by Ben Lerner combines a generous compendium of the Waldrops' work as poets, translators and publishers with a selection of essays and interviews in which they meditate on their craft.
To spend time with Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop’s Keeping/ the window open: Interviews, statements, alarms, excursions is to enter into a flux of time that is both the past and future of American letters. The 372-page, large format book, recently published by Wave Books, is a tribute, a compendium, and also a repository of illuminating insights for writers and translators concerned with the questions that Rosmarie and Keith have been struggling with since the beginning of their trajectory—the relation between form, language, and materiality being perhaps the most conspicuous among a group of central concerns that are considered from different perspectives throughout the book. Keeping/ the window open allows the reader to follow the development of these themes in chronological order, but at some point in my reading I began jumping around: from interview to collage, from poetry to prose, from the 1950s to the 2000s. I was thinking, as Rosmarie Waldrop points out various times in the book, of how poetic writing is a dialogue with language itself, and of how the words found here “reveal their own vectors and affinities, pull the poem into their own field of force . . .” One doesn’t have to read this book in a straight line, from beginning to end, to see the development of both Keith’s and Rosmarie’s artistic lives and recurring poetic obsessions. The crucial themes in this book can be better apprehended through another kind of reading, one that roams its pages freely to produce jump cuts, collages, superpositions in the material gathered there: from Keith’s early playscripts to his letterpress broadsides, from Rosmarie’s very first translations to her later essays on the craft.
Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop met in Germany, where she is from, when Keith was stationed there with the US Army. They met at a Christmas concert in Kitzingen in 1954. Their first joint translations date back to this era; it was with translation that their romance began. Later, they met again at the University of Aix-Marseille before Rosmarie moved with Keith to the University of Michigan. They have worked and lived since the early 1960s in Providence, Rhode Island, where Keith is professor emeritus in the literary arts program at Brown University. Through many years of working on translations, writings, and publishing projects they have continued to collaborate, particularly on their publishing house, Burning Deck Press. Created in 1961, the press produced numerous books of poetry and experimental prose, including many important titles of German and French poetry in translation. By the time they announced in 2017 that they would be closing the press, they had already published 247 titles.
More than once in this book, the Waldrops discuss their relation with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, the avant-garde group that developed around the eponymous magazine created by Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews in the late 1970s. Although their concerns can be seen to overlap at times, this relation is not one of direct affiliation. The difference in the Waldrops’ understanding of their own work, when compared to Andrews’s or Bernstein’s, is perhaps that they never believed it would cause revolution—if anything, slow deliberate change would have been a more likely outcome for them. They are clearly interested in the political implications of writing, however, to the point where even the basic structures of language can be seen to have political import. At one point in “Alarms and Excursions,” an essay about what it means to be a writer, Rosmarie writes: “[sentence structure] is also a feminist preoccupation . . . So I propose a pattern in which subject and object function are not fixed, but temporary, reversible roles, where there is no hierarchy of main and subordinate clauses, but a fluid and constant alternation.”
The close attention to language applies to all forms of their work: poetry, prose, translations, interviews, but also what they do as editors and publishers. In an interview with Ben Lerner, Rosmarie discusses her move from Germany to the United States in 1958 and her decision to begin writing in English. She felt paranoid about Germanness seeping through her work, she says, but then she had a revelation when she realized anglophone poets are putting on voices as well: “Why am I so afraid? Am I trying to prove I know English? In every poem? Thereafter I loosened up and also felt free to use German texts.” These words can serve as a model for where literature can move from here, beyond national borders or homogenous conceptions of language that imply something self-contained and restrained. It is this attitude of play and willingness to change that makes the collection so valuable to all kinds of writers. Peter Gizzi, in his interview with Keith, points out that the Waldrops set a model for him and so many others of how to make a “life in poetry.” An important distinction, because shortly before that moment Keith mentions how he “can’t quite fathom wanting to be something.” Doing the work, writing the poems, that has always been the important part. And somehow this seems rebellious today, to be unconcerned with labels and outcomes, to be concerned firstly with the task at hand.
The loosening of language confines goes further when Keith writes: “I remember him [Richard Wilbur] saying that he had a particular liking for words that mean one thing and one thing only. This struck me as a very interesting idea, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that, if I had to make a choice, it would be quite the opposite: I would prefer words to have a spread of meaning, so that one could say more than one thing at once.” It is the opposite of so much that we have been told about language, about translating. It is a strategy that moves away from realism and toward a surreal, proliferating, multiplying text. It is also a more honest assessment of the reader and everything she brings with her to each reading.
One of the most admirable elements of the Waldrops’ collective work is the subtle line of theory running through it while also never having to make itself too explicit. The theory does its work so that the poetry can embody the principles Keith and Rosmarie each later mention in essays and interviews. In her discussion of the fragment, for instance, an important topic in literary theory since the writings of the Jena romantics between the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, Rosmarie affirms that the “ultimate task” of translation “may be to bear witness to the essentially irreducible strangeness and distance between languages—but whose immediate task is exactly to explore that space.” One can read in a remark like this one the traces of Maurice Blanchot’s thinking, his idea that the fragment represents the closest possible reflection of thought in writing, the honest and broken piece of a too large world. Blanchot is ever present in her books and letterpresses so wonderfully reproduced in this book, but he remains, as other important references, a background figure, someone Rosmarie is constantly conversing with even if she doesn’t address him directly.
The relationship between words and sentences and languages is what the Waldrops have spent a lifetime exploring. Charles Olsen comes up often to reiterate the importance of the relationships between words rather than the search for the mot juste. Another oft-appearing name is that of Edmund Jabès, whose The Book of Questions is one of Rosmarie’s first published translations. In fact, discussion of Jabès, how Rosmarie came to translate him, and the Waldrops’ friendship with Jabès and his wife Arlette is an important element of the book. The couple helped the Waldrops when they were living in Paris and became lifelong friends and collaborators. This friendship is one sign of the larger project of the Waldrops’ life—to build community through language.
Reading this collection of texts leaves one feeling that there is a great deal of possibility in the world of publishing and writing avant-garde works of literature, and, to be clear, a feeling-centered sort of avant-garde. That is, a writing not concerned with experimentation for the sake of experimentation, but a pushing of limits in order to allow language to speak to our deepest ideas and emotions. In an essay on ideas about writing, Rosmarie remarks: “The poem will not work through its content, through a message which in any case would speak only to the already converted, but through its form.” It is the structure that will somehow make change. Structure seems infinitely important to their work but it is also the biggest challenge both in their original texts and in translation, though they never seemed to make a distinction between translation and their own writing. The elements of both practices infiltrated each other, demonstrated that in fact they were all part of the same practice. Keith writes, “The fact is that to translate is harder than writing something ‘of your own,’ since you face all the problems, all the difficulties, of composing any text, but in addition, the obligation to relate it in some way to another given text.” Writing as composition. It is no coincidence then that they greatly admire the writings of John Cage, a music theorist and composer who was concerned with silences, breaks, and defining music within the found material of our modern soundscape.
Looking over the ideas and forms presented in Keeping/ the window open, it becomes clear that both Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop are supranational authors, authors who have never been concerned with the creation of a national literature or tradition but rather are in search of a higher set of concepts around language and the written word. In Rosmarie’s translation of the third volume of The Book of Questions, there is a quote from someone named only as Reb Aloum: “My book has seven days and seven nights times the number of years it took the universe to let it go.” This book of the Waldrops is a small piece of the large book of the universe. It is personal, wise, and has something to offer anyone trying to “make a life in poetry.”
Translator Anton Hur on the increased visibility of queer Korean writers.
Am I proud of this mini-feature of Korean queer literature in translation courtesy of Words Without Borders?
We have Lee Jong San, the second out queer Korean writer to publish a book of fiction, and an excerpt from that very book in question: Customer!
We have Kim Bong-gon, the third out queer Korean writer to publish a book of fiction, and an excerpt from that very book in question: “College Folk” from Speed, Summer!
(The only reason WWB hasn’t published the fourth out queer Korean writer to publish a book of fiction is because a fourth book doesn’t exist yet. And yes, WWB has published the first out queer Korean writer to publish a book of fiction as well, thanks for asking.)
Korean literature has always had an embarrassment of riches when it comes to queer literature, but having out queer writers—as opposed to closeted queer writers or writers who were out to their translators and friends but not to the public, etc.—was somewhat elusive. But it’s history waiting to happen, and boy is it happening. Last year, I went to a panel for queer literature hosted by Seoul National University where Lee Jong San and Kim Bong-gon sat next to each other and I thought, Damn! We can fill an entire panel now! Kim Bi and Kim Hyun don’t have to be alone anymore!
You don’t have to be an out queer writer to produce unmistakably gorgeous queer Korean literature. I mean, have you seen how gay Korean literature has always been??? But in case you needed a reminder, we have Lee Hyemi’s sensuous poem “The Cupboard with Strawberry Jam” and Kim Hyejin’s About My Daughter, both works that also deal with the closet and what stays “hidden and sweet” or comes marching out of it with a lesbian-in-law in tow.
Queer rights in Korea has taken a battering in recent years: we have a homophobic president, witch hunts against gay soldiers (military service is compulsory in Korea; you want us to serve in the military and go to jail? Make up your goddamn minds!), and Christian fanatics are coming down strong—and violently—against queer pride all over the peninsula.
But we are fighting back. We have always been fighting back, but there has been something different in the air these past couple of years: the out authors, their books that suddenly seem to be doing quite well, and the domestic and international response, nay, demand for their work is mounting by the day.
In these very pages, I once wrote about a lunar sorority of queer Korean literary translators. Now, thanks to our authors, we’re ready to step forth into the sun.
"Korean Literature Is Stepping Out" © 2019 by Anton Hur. All rights reserved.
In this short story from Kim Bong-gon, a Korean student in Kyoto saves his professor from scandal, then finds himself on the verge of creating a new one.
Professor Shibata’s publishing class, with all its good intent, was slightly unrealistic.
“A good writer makes a good editor, and vice versa.”
Her very first statement sounded like a fine opening, but upon giving it more thought, one began by asking “Oh, yeah?” and ended with a “Like hell it is.” She flung her words out from the middle of nowhere, directed at neither writer nor editor. It was naïve to claim that all creative activities become art. Even if you weren’t up to it, you had to play the game. I was getting pretty sick and tired of the sophistry sold by art schools.
Tell us the truth, I wanted to shout. But then, I couldn’t blame her for not being upfront. She had the students’ dreams and artistic flair to think about, which would have compelled her to present an idealistic picture. Professor Shibata struck me as highly talented in planning and editing but not at all cut out for teaching. My expression turned into one of “Oh dear, how will she get by?” Realizing I wasn’t in a position to be worrying for a professor, I rested my chin on my hand and gazed out the window.
The Kyoto University of Art and Design, or Kyozo for short, taught editing as part of its creative writing program. Regardless of whether one believed editing was an art or not, schools were fighting to recruit only the experienced, which had both teachers and students aging before their time. This was a common phenomenon in Japan and Korea. Had I been a student for too long? Deep in thought, I had completely lost track of what was going on. Something I was well used to. I met Professor Shibata’s eyes and chanted my cure-all spell: Only in your country.
Now that the last theory class was over, we were left with the group assignment of making a book. I could see myself being subtly excluded, just like how I treated foreign students back in my undergraduate days. Thinking of the worst possible scenario failed to motivate me. Yeah, you guys go ahead. I’ll settle for a passing grade while repeating “gomen gomen.” Wait, it’s a pass/fail course for me. No sweat.
Sunlight begins to seep in through the window, slanted to follow the angle of the roof. At 4 p.m. in May, the classroom was like a greenhouse. I took off my jacket, hung it on the chair, and rolled up my sleeves. Professor Shibata had drawn her version of Girard’s triangle—the relationship between writer, editor, and reader. I watched her continue writing for a while before downloading, out of habit, a dating app. I had been lonely, so it surprised me that I hadn’t installed it earlier.
I requested a verification code by e-mail and routinely set up my profile with a fake age, weight, and photo—usually of a bear. This time, I chose Ice Bear from We Bare Bears. I jumped over to Seoul with my GPS disabled. The list was a slew of familiar faces. Guys I could put a face to just by looking at their lower half. I jumped to Yeouido, the neighborhood where Hyeong-seop works. His photo came up after a few flicks. He was cuddling his dog while watching TV—a photo I had taken. He had been in a relationship at the time I left Korea, but who knows what might have happened since. His profile said he was just “looking for friends.” I was done here.
I changed my settings to read for my location. Three users within fifty meters! Could they be in this classroom? None of them seemed like it. I tapped on each photo: one was a fashion design major whom I had sometimes bumped into at the cafeteria, and the other two hid behind their fake photos. What a waste of time. I blocked them and deleted my profile. The final step of sterilization was uninstalling the app. Men, who needs them anyway.
At the end of class, I trudged down the stairs, which everybody called the Stairway to the Sky. The setting sun added a more delicate, dreamy effect to the surroundings. This city is too sentimental, and that’s why I like it. At the same time, this thought upset me. I was tempted to drop by Sukiya for dinner but walked past it. My recent purchase of a Tiffany lamp in Gion had left me with only three thousand yen. There were five days left until my next allowance. Deciding to skip dinner, I headed to Café Myu.
Since turning thirty last winter, I had begun to see that “marriage” was not a necessity and had grown more accepting of open relationships. These changes stemmed from within, uninfluenced by others. I had quit trying to meet someone, and the sexual tension I felt, if any, was a delusion. These days, all that made me happy were retro objects reminiscent of the Showa period, buildings, plants, and the occasional gripping discovery of things having different forms yet the same qualities. Literature and men, once my greatest sources of joy, were now reduced in status.
I no longer had love in my heart, and this alone made me undeserving. Not wanting to drown further in my sorrows, I shut the Nagai Kafu book and lit a cigarette. Through the window, covered in post-its, I saw leaves of different kinds dancing in the wind. The sago palm, kentia palm, sal tree, and the list went on. It was my first moment of joy that day. As I stared blankly past the trees, the café manager put on a new song. I recognized it as Miyuki Nakajima’s It’s Only Love. The songs I preferred had a stronger folk feel, but this was great too. It was nice of him to remember I’d named her a favorite. When the song ended, I went out for some fresh air. Then, I texted Hyeong-seop.
—Hey, Japanese guys are so ugly. Seriously, there’s not much to look at here. I feel so sorry for myself!
In Kyoto, I hadn’t met anyone remotely close to the burly man of my dreams. I had no idea it would be this bad. Oh well, it’s only the airport. Yeah, those guys aren’t Japanese. That one’s had better days. Age must have caught up with him.
Sure, Korea had its share of bad apples. There were times when an entire month would pass without a handsome guy in sight. Considering how gifted I was at falling in love, I was surprised that this dry spell could go on for two months. Just as difficult was finding gays. Had my gaydar broken when I crossed the Korea Strait? Was the nonke1 style more popular in Japan? Or, was it because I was in Kyoto, where people’s minds were hard to read? As these questions flooded my mind,
—East or West, home is best.
was his response. He had finally gotten a sense of humor. I chuckled, and replied, “bullshit lol.”
I continued to live with him for more than two years after breaking up. Even now, his house is still my home. I sometimes forget it altogether, even to the point of calling a friend a nutjob for meeting up with his ex. I lost all feelings for Hyeong-seop when I lost my place in his heart. Living with your ex isn’t that big a deal.
Sure, I’ve had uncomfortable moments. Friends who were more reserved would raise their eyebrows about my living situation. Men with whom things seemed to be going well would shake their heads at my confession and distance themselves. A gay friend who should have known better asked if we ever did it after. This made me want to sever ties with him, but I let it pass.
He had found someone new at the start of this year. Two years ago, I felt exhausted after a string of short-lived rebound relationships and decided to quit dating altogether. Unlike me, my ex kept playing the field. Every guy that came after me was younger. Was it his strong sense of responsibility that appealed to younger dudes? In this respect, he deserves to be praised. After all, he was taking care of the rent, and even gave me allowance money.
The one time we got mad at each other was when he thought I wasn’t home and barged in with his new lover. I lashed out, saying it was basic manners to check before bringing a guest. I would have acted the same whoever it was, but he often slept out after that. Before leaving Korea, I told him to feel free to set up his home like a newlywed, just like we had. I was the one living off him, and me going away would help him save on motel rooms. It was also my last chance to sign up for a student exchange program.
—How’s Kuma doing?
It was something I asked every three days or so. He gave a curt “Fine,” and flashed a photo. Behind the sleeping dog, I noticed a large stuffed elephant from the Songkran festival he went to with his gay friends. I’d thought of him as the most boring man in the world, with the most boring life, but even that was changing. There were more and more things I didn’t know about him. Out of spite, I told him to squeeze Kuma’s anal sacs if he had the time to spread his ass. I ended the conversation with “Byeee!” There was no reply.
Perhaps I had failed in both weaning and mourning. I knew I would eventually have to stand on my own. Just a little longer, I thought. After I’m done with my thesis, after graduating, after getting a job . . . I could have put it off forever. Things probably would have stayed the same unless something big came up.
Come next week, it would be June. At long last, the welcome program was over. I had survived the awkward welcome events, the lame campus tour, and orientation. “Have a nice life,” I thought as I said good-bye to my orientation mentor, who was more touchy-feely than necessary. Knowing who to talk to and who not to, I looked forward to being more settled down. While most graduate students take nine credits, I only needed six. Fed up with writing, I had thought about applying under a different major, but didn’t have the nerve to take the risk. Anyhow, the Department of Literary Expression sounded just as flaky as what they call it back at my university: Narrative Writing.
I signed up for Professor Shibata’s publication class and Professor Ehara’s writing class, which involved reading and writing a short story. I was determined to complete one out of the three pieces required for me to graduate next semester. On a yellow post-it, I wrote my goals for the summer.
—Make a book.
—Read and write.
Two simple lines. As clear as day.
Kyozo was in many ways similar to the Korea National University of Arts. They were both on the outskirts of the city, which meant there was no place nearby to hang out or dine. They were inefficient in their use of space, and had the preposterous idea that an exposed concrete finish would create a modern atmosphere while inspiring creativity. The students at Kyozo were dressed pretty much the same, but stood out among the locals. As for the art students, I could easily make out their major on my own. Could art schools get any more alike? I totally belonged here.
The one person who didn’t fit the mold, of Korea or Kyozo, was Professor Ehara Hironobu. He wasn’t the stereotypical art professor: uselessly modernesque or on the borderline of sanity. Born in 1977, he was on the young side, but felt like someone of my father’s generation. Our conversations—he was always in control—were subdued and comforting. He studied French literature at Kyoto University and came to teach under the title of novelist, but had a greater passion for translation. The slight outward squint in his left eye, if you didn’t look closely, gave the impression that he didn’t know where to place his eyes—I found it cute. He was of average height, had droopy eyes, and always had a two-day stubble. He wasn’t exactly my type, but being around him lifted my mood. In one word, he was fuckable.
Professor Ehara’s office always smelt of slightly unripe citrus, and it was where we met for individual lessons, making me more nervous than usual. At the start of each lesson, he would hand me a cup of matcha frothed with a bamboo whisk. I would gulp it down, thinking it was green tea latte, and the bland taste surprised me each time.
Today, I was sitting across from him with Kafu Nagai’s A Strange Tale from East of the River between us. Me with the Korean translation, and him with the original. I rattled off, with my limited vocabulary, what I thought of it. The script I had prepared went like this: When you think about it, Kafu’s views on women are surprisingly outdated. The frame narrative is hard to stand if you don’t bear in mind it was written eighty years ago. His intelligent honesty puts me off. But, the way he revives the Edo period by overlaying it with the present is remarkably beautiful and natural.
“Does reading his work make you want to write?” He regarded me as an overly faithful reader. It was true.
“I haven’t thought about it.”
“His method of composition isn’t applicable today. But a work that weaves together reality with writing, illusion, and the story itself is timeless,” he said. I jotted down his words. I usually feel a greater desire to make analogies than to write. What I really wanted to ask was whether he saw the resemblance between Kafu’s exploration of the red-light district and a gay man’s late-night cruising.
He gave a recap of writers and their works in the age of militarism. Sensing that he had gotten longwinded, he continued with a more balanced perspective of Kafu’s views on women. Reminding me that I could decide what to take and what to throw out, he recommended a few works of prose by the same author. I said I was glad to have read the book, even though that wasn’t how I presented myself.
“Mr. Kim, didn’t you mention liking Roland Barthes and Philip Roth?”
“I may be of some help when it comes to Barthes. How about reading him next time?”
“This time, Mr. Kim, you decide what to read and drop me an e-mail.”
He sprang to his feet and threw a grayish-green cardigan over his arm. I looked at the clock and saw there was still more than an hour left to class. According to the professor, we wouldn’t be doing right by Kafu if we were to remain on campus after reading his work. And with it being such a fine day, he suggested taking a walk toward Demachiyanagi Station. Absolutely, I said.
I’m informed that Demachiyanagi is where the Takano River meets the Kamo River. I’m not sure why that’s important, but I was fond of the Kamo River, which runs through Kyoto from north to south. We cut across the university field and walked slowly toward the river. The campus had an old-fashioned charm. I followed behind, taking photos of some students playing catch.
Professor Ehara called himself a native of Kyoto. His declaration was a mix of subtle pride and scorn. “I’m friendly, but don’t trust me” or “I’m suave, and at the same time, shrewd” was what he seemed to be saying. I stopped every now and then to ask what the term was for something unfamiliar. He replied kindly each time. This is called a happi. That’s the raccoon dog statue. KWSK is KY-go2 for “kuwashiku,” which means “in detail.”
The river, flowing below the bridge, was peaceful and serene. It was a post-Kafu picnic, yet we didn’t say a single word about him. There was nothing strange about that, but not knowing why got me anxious. He asked if I wanted to head down to the bank and walk for a bit longer along the river. I nodded. I got a good look at Professor Ehara’s frame when his off-white shirt clung to his back in the wind. After walking wordlessly for about twenty minutes, we crossed a small bridge leading back to the pavement. We walked past the Kokoro Research Center and found ourselves standing on the east side of the river.
Hyeong-seop had sent the books I asked for by express mail. They came in one big bundle. It would take an entire semester—longer—to read them all. A few weeks ago, I had asked him to buy some books to follow the new syllabus that Professor Ehara had prepared for me. Hyeong-seop mentioned how hard it’d been for him to get a copy of Empire of Signs. I was too excited to give him a proper thank you. I clutched the book, worn and frayed, and went “hehehe” before running out to the veranda. How low the buildings, how high the trees! “Hehehe!”
In the daytime, Café Myu was my reading spot. Besides the good selection of folk songs, I enjoyed watching the male students, each engrossed in something meaningless. The café had the feel of a grimy, run-down manga hangout. The manager liked that I was an aspiring writer and cheered me on. It felt like I had only been showing him my reading side, so I thought about doing some writing. In my notebook, I scribbled a few words and fragmentary sentences. The leaves and patterned curtains cast a shadow on the page. Again, I was distracted. In nearby Osaka, an anti-Korean rally was in full swing. Even the nonchalant Hyeong-seop expressed his concern, but here I was, relaxing on what couldn’t be a more peaceful afternoon. Was the world deceiving me? Oh well, it didn’t matter anyhow.
I didn’t miss Korea at all. Rather, Japan was pure bliss. Back when I was a film major in college, a professor asked, “So what is it that you eventually want to achieve?” My answer was, “I want to perfectly restore Jinhae to how it was in the 1980s.” Childhood and hometown have always been, and are still, my focus. I have quite a collection of writings and photos of my hometown. When I realized how pointless they were, I felt a slight pang of regret. I thought I had guarded my memories well, but here in Kyoto, I was surrounded by my childhood scenes. They came naturally without me having to make-believe or indulge in illusions. In each and every space, I discovered my childhood. All I had to do was pick them up, like a miner during the gold rush.
Around sunset, I left the café. The buses in Kyoto, with a dark green line drawn against a pistachio-colored background, were very similar to the Cheil Transit intercity buses from my childhood. Just as I brought to mind the old bus terminal, I was enveloped by a mist of car exhaust. In it, I caught the scent of a man. I longed to get another whiff on the way home, but it was gone.
From a distance, I saw that the three-story co-op house was lit up except for my room. A folding bed that left my feet dangling at the end, a desk and chair too small and inconvenient, and a tatami mat that should have been replaced ages ago. I took a photo of the room with the book poking its nose under the Tiffany lamp. This had me in a much better mood. Save for the fact that I was a little hungry, all was well.
The events of that morning are vivid in my mind. It was the first Monday of July, and I had left the house with a reminder from the newscaster to pack an umbrella. I felt relieved knowing I’d get to school before the rain. I headed toward the statue of Yoshida Shoin for a quick smoke before class.
Not long after I had lit up, a drop of rain fell on the statue’s cheek. I quickly put out the cigarette and dashed into the building where Professor Ehara’s office was. The school was deserted on Monday mornings. Through the half-open window at the end of the corridor, I saw that the rain was falling harder. The door to Professor Ehara’s office was cluttered with A4-sized prints of photos and typed words. At first, I thought it was an art installation or an assignment where you had to use tape to achieve three-dimensionality.
Stuck on the door was a selfie of Professor Ehara. Dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, he was giving a thumbs-up while wearing a masculine expression. In the bathroom selfie below, he had on a pair of white briefs. Next to it was a low-angle photo of a naked man, hands tied to the headboard and penis erect, with his body covered in lewd comments.
Hironobu, slave pig dying to be tamed! I’m your dirty bitch hole.
The words were scrawled in black paint. The high-res photo that showed every wrinkle was clearly not manipulated. It had been cropped around the nose, but the cleft chin was unmistakable.
In the last photo, he was lying face down and ass up, hands bound, and in a state of drooling ecstasy.
Slave hole Ehara, you feeling good? Are your adultery novels all fake?
Professor Ehara, is your back-pussy daijoubu?
The photos were surrounded by a tangle of typed words.
As I slowly digested the messages, the front of my shirt became soaked with sweat. The photos were all screenshots from a dating app. My heart was thumping louder than ever, and my breathing getting heavier. I had to keep myself from shouting.
I ran out to the main corridor to make sure no one was around. I hurried back to the office, tore down the sheets of paper, and stuffed them in my bag. A sudden craving for a cigarette took over. Outside, I smoked three cigarettes in a row. The humid air worsened my breathing, adding to it a bout of dry heaving. I went into a toilet, took off my drenched undershirt, and dumped it in the trash. After washing up and getting my breath back, I headed for Professor Ehara’s office. It was twenty minutes past nine.
When I knocked, he invited me in. He seemed to have just arrived. As I took my seat, he placed his briefcase below the desk, and removed his Barbour jacket, wet from the rain. As usual, he started whisking a cup of matcha. I stared at his hands and fought to look away from his body. There came a moment when I had to raise my head, and his chin came into sight. I was haunted by an image of him breaking apart at the cleft. I sipped the tea he passed over, but the gross taste made me vomit. I was rambling on about cleaning up the mess when he pressed gently on my shoulders.
“Mr. Kim, you’re breaking out in a cold sweat. Are you all right?”
I insisted I was fine, but he said it’d be better for me to take the day off. He told me where the student health clinic was and gave me his number so I could call just in case. Since the queasiness passed, I chose to go home.
Back in my room, I smoothed out the crumpled pieces of paper, and taped them back where they had been torn. This time, words far more profane caught my attention. A screenshot of Professor Ehara’s profile revealed personal details, from body measurements and sex positions to how he liked to spend the weekend.
While taking it all in, I tried to deduce who the culprit was. But I was clueless. I couldn’t assume it was a student’s doing based on the word “professor.” Anyone pretending to be gay could have accessed the photos. The sole evidence seemed to be that the outer had read his novels, not that this made much of a difference.
They were clever, deliberate statements that didn’t reveal anything significant. The photos lingered in my mind, and an imagined voice belonging to someone of unknown gender and age pierced the obscenities into my ears. There were clear risks involved in meeting up. Caught off guard, we were laughably weak.
For the few days that followed, I searched the school’s online bulletin board and Facebook whenever I could. There was neither exposé nor public testimonial. I was relieved, and at the same time, engulfed in insecurity knowing the assault could be repeated. Professor Ehara seemed his usual self when I met him in class on Wednesday. I couldn’t jump to the conclusion that he didn’t know, but I couldn’t ask either. I had to make do with guessing.
I rang up Hyeong-seop for the first time in a long while.
Hey, my advisor here is gay!
was what I stopped myself from saying. I inquired about Kuma instead.
“It’s getting really hot here. I wrapped an ice pack in a towel for Kuma. I’m on my way to work now,” he said.
Resisting the urge to tell him about Professor Ehara, I asked after his relationship. “Same old, same old,” was his reply. “Can you help me choose some clothes for summer? I’ve no idea what to wear.”
I recall how I’d crammed my luggage with all the summer clothes I could find in the house. I thought about ordering some clothes online and sending him the bill, but decided to shop for him in exchange for the books. When it was about time for work, he hung up.
After class that evening, I headed out to Gion. I bought some T-shirts and pants for him at a few SPA brands, and stretched my budget a little on a shirt from Brooks Brothers. From the bargain counter, I chose a few flimsy T-shirts for myself. I had a hard time deciding if I should get a pair of gray gym shorts as short as my swimming trunks and went with it in the end.
A few days later, we were again seated across from each other with Empire of Signs. The drink was cold oolong tea. I managed to meet his eyes, but I wasn’t completely at ease. The photos kept flashing before my eyes. Putting his hands together, Professor Ehara leaned forward in his seat. I had to stay calm.
“Mr. Kim, let’s hear what you like about Barthes.”
“He’s sensitive and persistent. Among those who show such qualities, Barthes is the only one who writes beautifully. I guess I vibrate on the same frequency as he does.”
“Have you ever thought of him as making much ado about nothing? Or that his logic is flawed?”
“Aren’t those the basic qualities of a writer?”
My comeback made him return a smile.
I loved everything about Barthes—his exaggeration, his logical jumps, his obstinacy. Above all, I was drawn to his beautiful layers of metaphor. A gift box wrapped in layers and layers of chiyogami paper. Most of what Barthes wrote supported his existence as self and as a homosexual. The non-center, the inexplicability of punctum, impersonality and degree zero, codes, and fantasy. These were what Barthes kindly placed in his gift box as intellectual and emotional proof of his queerness. His structural intentions resonated with me so much that I couldn’t have interpreted otherwise.
“Professor, do you like Barthes?”
“Is it possible not to?”
What I would have regarded as simple assent on any other day sounded like it had more between the lines.
“I sense a depth in him.”
Professor Ehara nodded.
“Barthes’s writings come from depth. That depth stems from a thoughtful sincerity.”
I agreed and disagreed.
“Do explain what you mean by sincerity.”
“I’m not referring to superficial expressions. That’s hardly desirable as the language of literature.”
From another perspective, I thought of Barthes as having a cowardly style. I wanted to say, be more extreme, be crude, and tell it as it is. But there was no denying that the essence of pleasure was in being bound to his secrecy as a confidant.
“A better choice would be beating around the bush.”
“Is that how Barthes writes, or how people in Kyoto speak?”
He flashed another smile. Now, Professor Ehara was to me a text written by Barthes. I wanted to rip apart his layers of metaphor.
When he rose with a palm-up gesture, as though admitting defeat, I caught a whiff of citrus and the pleasant scent of a well-groomed man. I felt a welling up, like bile, and my heart thudded. I was fully erect. He turned to me, about to speak. I scooted the chair back, enough to spread open my legs. I placed my hands on my thighs. His gaze dropped to my crotch. My penis beckoned beneath my gray gym shorts. He looked away, licked his lips, and turned back again to my groin. I was in luck.
I was seized by a burning desire to pounce on him. I imagined taking off his pants, burying my face in his sweaty crotch, and licking him all over. If he wanted, I would have agreed to being trampled or drinking his piss. But, I thought it’d be best to stop here. Of this, he was more certain.
“Mr. Kim, you have fully persuaded me.”
His hands were stuffed deep into his pockets. Leaning his head back and stroking his stubble, he added, “That’s it for today.”
1. Straight male.↩
2. Literally “KY language,” which abbreviates Japanese phrases using roman-letter initials.↩
"College Folk" © Kim Bong-gon. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Kyoung-lee Park. All rights reserved.
A student meets her first androgyne and makes a startling discovery in this chapter from a futuristic novel by Lee Jong San.
My feet were wet when I met Ahn.
It was the day before the Entrance Ceremony. The snow, which started falling the night before, had lasted till morning, and everything outside had turned white. For me, the ankle-deep snow was so exciting and new that I walked around in it outside for quite some time before returning to the dormitory. I opened the door to our room and Ahn was standing there. Xe was wearing a T-shirt.
“Hi,” Ahn introduced xyrself.
I stood there speechless. Before opening the door, I’d been thinking only of soaking my feet in warm water.
Ahn asked, “Are you Suni?”
“You must be Ahn.”
The room was a double. I’d seen the name written next to mine. I’d imagined what Ahn might look like. The person who stood before me looked completely different from what I’d imagined. Ahn was luminous. Xe had an expressive face and a penetrating gaze. And was about eight inches taller than me. Xyr close-cropped hair suited xyr toned and trim figure. Black hair, just like mine.
“Can I ask you something kinda rude?”
Ahn nodded. I took off my boots. My feet felt like they would freeze solid.
“Are you a girl?”
At first glance, it was impossible to tell if Ahn was a boy or a girl. I felt self-conscious. Now that I had asked, it sounded extremely rude.
Ahn smiled. “I’m androgyne.”
I’d heard about androgynes. People who were both male and female at the same time. I heard that their overflowing hormones made them dangerously seductive, and I heard they were impulsive. In particular, I heard a rumor that they caused a lot of violent incidents. All the rumors surrounding androgynes didn’t paint a very nice picture. People gossiped a lot because not many had actually met an androgyne. This was my first time meeting one. Ahn’s face and frame were large and solid, like a well-built man’s. And, as if in opposition to that, xyr chest bulged out and xyr waist was slender, creating curves. Xyr features were delicate. It was true that xe exuded sexual magnetism, but xe didn’t look like the violent type. Actually, Ahn looked peaceful and reserved—the polar opposite of the rumors.
“So can I also be a bit rude?”
This time I was being asked by Ahn. Xyr tone was breezy. I nodded, just like Ahn had done.
Xe pointed at me and said, “Are you a Worm?”
“How can you tell?”
“You haven't met the others yet, have you?”
“You'll figure it out when you do.”
I hesitated, then asked, “Do you hate Worms?”
“How do you feel about androgynes?”
“Well, I’ve never met one before, so what do I know? You're my first.”
“And you’re my first Worm,” Ahn said with a smile.
Xe didn’t look upset. Seeing how calm xe was helped me relax. I felt a closeness.
“I’m gonna wash up. I was out there so long I almost turned to ice,” I said and left for the communal showers shared by the whole floor. I was only going to soak my feet but changed my mind and decided to take a shower.
My first friend.
My heart pounded as I walked down the hall.
There was no one in the chilly shower room. Hot water poured down as soon as I turned on the shower. As my frozen body melted, my skin prickled, then grew warm.
Night fallen snow, morning views, the feeling of my feet punching through the snow, a cool roommate, a hot shower.
A wonderful feeling. My body melted in the hot water.
Where could all the anger I felt on the ship have gone?
I felt my hair, I felt my body. It was as if the anger and sadness that had built up these past few days spent alone in the dorms had been washed away.
When I returned to the room, Ahn was reading a book. My book. A book I had been given, full of information about all the Custom shops. I had lovingly marked up the book, noting all the shops I wanted to visit, and tried to disguise my embarrassment with anger.
“What do you think you’re doing?” I felt my face flame up as I thought about Ahn seeing the little memos I had written in the margins, like “A Must-Go!” and “Cute ♥.”
Ahn calmly put the book down, “Sorry. It was sitting on your desk. Are you interested in Customs too?”
It wasn't just an “interest,” but I didn't respond. Where I come from, we didn’t touch other people’s possessions without permission, even if we were really close. Did the kids here have a different concept of personal property?
I picked up the book and put it up on the bookshelf. The shelves looked desolate as I didn’t have many books yet.
The room spun with silence. Awkward. I pretended not to notice Ahn noticing my mood and lay down on my bed. I tried to think about what I should eat for dinner, but it didn't go so well. Ahn still stood there, anxiously. I thought that xe would have a more uncaring personality.
In the end, Ahn spoke first. “Hey, I’m going to head into the city, wanna come?”
“Where’re you going?”
“I was just gonna look around and get something to eat.”
Truthfully, I was really happy that Ahn invited me out. I was going a bit stir-crazy after being stuck in the dorms for the past few days.
We turned our backs to one another and started changing clothes.
What’s Ahn’s body like?
I suppressed my curiosity, dressed quickly, and put on my coat. I bought it at a market near the dock the day my ship came into port.
“Do you have any Customs?”
I looked behind me. Ahn was wearing loose khaki trousers and a white T-shirt.
“What’d you get done?”
I said yes.
Ahn showed me the Customs to xyr body one by one. Xe had five.
The first were xyr eyes. Xe said that xe had changed the shape to almond. I thought they looked like a cat’s. The second were xyr irises; they were a pure pumpkin color. Ahn said they looked yellow in the light. The third Custom was a pattern incised on xyr wrist and the fourth made xyr fingernails turn green and emit a dark light.
I stared into Ahn’s eyes and took the hand xe offered to look at xyr wrist and fingernails.
These were common places to get Customs, even in the Worms District. But the sweet scent coming from Ahn’s body made the Customs done to xyr eyes and hands feel special.
“Your fifth Custom is your scent, isn’t it?” I asked. Now that I stood closer to Ahn, I felt xyr scent chase all my thoughts away.
“Yeah, I got it done at Dirty.”
Dirty is a Custom store that specializes in scent. They can put a particular scent on your whole body or make it come from a specific part of it. Even I knew about it because it was often featured in the magazine Customer. They don’t have any stores in the Worms District, but there were several stores dotted around the Jade and Sun Districts. It was somewhere I wanted to visit at least once.
“Did you mix the scent yourself?”
“I picked out the elements, but the expert helped me mix it.”
“What did you put in?”
“That’s right. And?”
“I’m not sure.”
It had the sweet perfume of flowers, but there was also a cool scent mixed in. I put my nose to Ahn’s neck and breathed in.
Ahn moved away from me and pulled on a windbreaker. The scent faded as xe zipped it up. “Let’s hurry up. We’ve gotta be back by nine.”
I was well aware. The dormitory curfew was 9:00 pm and roll call would be starting tonight. Ahn and I locked the door and exited the dormitory. My first trip outside.
* * *
I stood, stunned, in the entrance of the store and a man with a mane stared back at us. He had no human hair and instead had a horselike mane that grew voluptuously from the top of his head down the back of his neck. It had a deep red luster, bringing to mind sunset-lit barley. I only looked away when annoyance flashed in his olive-green eyes. He had been standing in the Nails section. The corner devoted to fingernails and toenails was closest to the shop’s entrance. I had little interest in nails. Ahn and I walked past the register and went deeper inside. The first place to pique my interest was the Eye section.
The Eye section was decorated to look like a laboratory. A skull with fluorescent pink plastic orbs slotted in its sockets instead of eyeballs was displayed at the entrance. Without thinking, I tapped its pink eye with the tip of my finger.
“You’ve come to the right place. Wanna trade eyes with me?”
The skull’s jawbone moved and laughter rang from its mouth. Lights flashed in its eyes. I furiously shook my head. Ahn saw me do this and laughed.
Ahn’s gaze held no wonder as xe took in the flasks filled with eyeballs or the eyelashes crafted from insect legs. Quite the opposite of xyr, my eyes were whirling around. They just about rolled out the back of my head.
An enormous pyramid-style flask stood in the center of the display area. It was nearly twice as tall as me and was pretty wide around as well. Fake eyes of all shapes and colors bobbed around in the clear liquid that filled the flask. Some had floated to the top and others had sunk to the bottom, but most of them were clustered together somewhere in the middle, tumbling and colliding as if in a fight.
What really caught my attention were the small flasks, which each held a single animal eye. They gave off a completely different vibe from the humanoid kind. Pig eyes. Cow eyes. A myriad of fish eyes, even one from a goldfish. Chicken eyes and bat eyes. Every single type of eye imaginable, they were all there.
I started to feel a bit queasy and moved on to where the human eye selection was displayed. There were even more types of human eyes, so instead of being in flasks, they were lined up in display cases. However, none of them could be popped into your head. All of the eyes in the display cases were just samples showing the different shape and color options.
I skimmed over the everyday eyes and focused in on the specialty eyeballs. Eyes with stars punched into the pupils. Eyes that glowed with aurora light. Eyes with patterns drawn on the whites and more! Looking into the hologram mirror, I played around trying out all the fancy eyeballs.
I tried on eyes until the novelty wore off, then made a full loop of the floor while also looking out for Ahn. I looked all around the Hair, Nose, Mouth, and Ear sections, but couldn’t find xyr.
When I finally found Ahn on the second floor, I felt so relieved I grabbed xyr arm. Ahn didn’t show any surprise and didn’t shake off my loose hold. A faint smile played on xyr lips.
“What’re you looking at?”
Ahn answered with a flick of xyr eyes. It was only then that I realized we were standing in front of a wall of male sex organs. We were in the Genitals section!
“What? You want a bigger one?”
I tried to bluff my way out with a stupid joke, but I was burning with embarrassment. I had touched a plastic penis during health class, but I had never seen the real thing before. I only knew the difference between an aroused and an unaroused penis in theory.
“More like the opposite,” xe answered coolly.
Another blast of bravado burst out of me, “Is it so big you trip over it or something?”
“Give it up. You’ve gone all red.”
On the second floor there was a section that dealt with body parts Customs, from simple Customs like lengthening or shortening legs to more complex ones like changing the skeletal structures. They even did Customs modeled on animal legs. I didn’t have any real interest in changing any part of my body, so I just casually browsed the displays of the Arms and Legs section.
* * *
I had seen all the second floor had to offer. We passed the column with the sign and went down to the basement. Now that really blew me away. I grew ecstatic when I saw all the tails, wings, and horns. These were exactly what I was interested in.
I made eye contact with a dapper monkey-tailed man who raised his cap in greeting. My heart pounded and I looked over at the Wings section. A woman with immense butterfly wings on her back stood at the counter getting help from the salesperson, testing how her new wings flapped and folded.
I fell into panic mode.
Ahn grabbed hold of me and asked, “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine. I’m just so happy. This place is amazing.”
“If you don’t get it together, we’re not going to get to eat before we have to go back. Are you going to get a Custom today?”
“I’ve got to.”
“Well then, let’s decide what kind of Custom you want.”
What should my first custom be?
I repeated the question to myself, over and over. It was something I had debated thousands of times before, but now that the moment had finally come, my mind emptied to a blank, bright white.
I was at a loss. Ahn pulled me into a corner and sat me down. Cushioned in a soft chair, I took deep breaths and was able to gather my thoughts. Now that I had calmed down, I remembered what I wanted my first Custom to be.
A horn. Just like the one growing from the forehead of the mermaid who once rescued me. I wasn’t sure if it was a dream or a memory, but that image had always stuck with me. I wanted to put a mermaid horn on my body.
“I’ve decided. Let’s go to the Horn section.”
There must’ve been hundreds of people who wanted to get horns! It was so packed that I could hardly find a place to stand.
A man with horns all over his body approached and inquired, “Do you have a specific horn you’re looking for?”
He had small horns poking out along the shell of his ears and he had big ones on his head that curled up at the end like a bull’s. He also had a trail of tiny horns running from the middle finger of his left hand to his elbow that looked like a red line from afar. His hair was half white, but I’m pretty sure it was a Custom and not a reflection of his age.
In front of a Customer like him, I felt like such an amateur for wanting to get something so small.
“I’m looking for a horn to put on my forehead.” I said shyly. Ahn was nearby, looking at the horns on display.
“What sort of size are you looking for?”
I glanced at the nametag pinned to his shirt.
Of course he’s called Pan.
I became tongue-tied, unable to express what I had in mind, so Pan walked me over to a display. Horns were displayed according to size in a vertical case. The second smallest size, one inch, looked about right. I would be able to hide it behind my bangs when I went home for the holidays.
“Now you need to pick what shape you’d like. We’ll be able to make them any color.”
Unlike his mischievous namesake, Pan was very friendly as he helped me. Now that I’d gotten a better look, I could tell Pan was very handsome. If he shaved his extravagant mustache, his face would look quite kindly. Even though it hid most of his face, his mustache couldn’t hide his soft eyes. When you noticed that he hadn’t changed his eyes with a Custom, it was hard to tell if Pan had hated his original, softer look. In any case, any man or woman who looked into those eyes would want to take care of him. Even I felt that way.
“I’ll let you know when I’ve made up my mind.” I said politely, trying my best not to cause him any extra trouble. Pan smiled and went to help another customer.
“See anything you like?” Ahn asked. Xe had finished looking through all that was on offer.
“I’ve almost made up my mind, I’m debating between these two styles. It’s between the corkscrew or the spiral one with the little lines cut in.”
“Since you’re getting a small one, I think the corkscrew will look good. The spiral just doesn’t have any impact.”
I nodded in agreement. The horn of the mermaid in my dreams was spiral with deep lines. The horns in the display case didn’t compare. Like Ahn said, the corkscrew would look better.
I found Pan and told him I had made my selection. “I’ll have the corkscrew.”
“Great choice, come this way.”
Pan sat me down at a large vanity table with a hologram mirror. The monitor had a program where you could select the shape and color of your horns. Pan touched the screen, inputting the style of horn I wanted and where on the body it would go.
“Now you can pick the color while looking at your reflection.”
Listening to Pan’s instructions, I tapped the middle of the purple group, and then the me reflected in the mirror had a purple horn on her forehead.
Ahn helped me pick the color. For a moment, I thought I might get them the same color as xyr fingernails, but I stopped that train of thought; if I copied someone else, I’d regret it later. Gold or silver were too common, so I passed over them and tried out my favorite colors one by one, but nothing really felt right.
After a long time spent debating, I decided on a deep silvery gray with a hint of purple pearlescence mixed in. Now that I had made my choice, I was pretty pleased with the results. Pan was in the middle of an engrossing conversation with a woman who had an orange horn on the bridge of her nose, but came over when we called him.
“Follow me, please.”
My heart skipped a beat when Pan brought me to a small booth with a sign that said “The Punching Room.”
Pan saw how nervous I was and smiled, asking, “Is it your first time?”
“Yes, it’s my first Custom.”
Pan nodded. “It’ll look very cool.”
“I think so too.”
I went into the Punching Room. I had to put my face up to the machine with a small camera hanging from it and stand still.
“Don’t worry, it won’t hurt. It’ll be over in a flash. Just close your eyes.”
“Wait! Are there any sort of side effects? Or anything I should know?”
Pan thought about his answer carefully, then said, “Well, since you’re putting something on your forehead, it will be uncomfortable to sleep face down. It’s best if you don’t do pushups. And what else is there . . . Oh! If you fall over, make sure you fall backward.”
He scratched his chin and gave me a look asking if I was ready now. I put my face against the machine.
Pan left the room. The door closed and I could hear the sounds of the machine moving. I felt light flash before my closed eyes. And then the machine turned off.
Was that it?
“Could you come out, please?”
Pan spoke to me through a speaker hanging on the wall. I moved away from the machine and felt my forehead. There was nothing there.
Did something go wrong?
Nervously, I left the booth.
Pan was twirling his mustache around his finger and frowning at the monitor. He looked like a doctor who had just found signs of serious disease in a patient’s X-ray. Ahn, standing behind him, also had a strange expression.
“Is something wrong?”
“Come take a look. You already have a horn.”
I looked where Pan was pointing on the monitor. There seemed to be something round in the middle of my forehead. It looked to be over two inches in diameter.
“This is the root of a horn.”
“You’re telling me this is a horn?”
“Yes, I’m certain of it.”
Pan tapped the cow horn on his head. “What would you like to do? Would you like to put them anywhere else on your body?”
“I have to think about it some more.”
“So you really had no idea?”
Was he seriously asking if I hadn’t known about a horn rooted in my forehead? Of course I hadn’t known! Do Mom and Dad know? Still in shock, I looked to Ahn.
Our eyes met and Ahn gave me an awkward smile. I started to get scared that xe might start to think I was weird. I feared I might lose the first friend I made.
"Customer" © Lee Jong San. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Victoria Caudle. All rights reserved.
Susan Harris introduces our tenth Queer issue.
Nearly a decade ago, our former editor Rohan Kamicheril planned an issue of queer writing. The issue proved so popular, and so reflective of our editorial vision, that we decided to make it an annual event. You’ll find queer writing at WWB throughout the year, but our June issues have provided a space to bring this multiplicity of voices into conversation with each other and with readers. This month we bring you our tenth Queer issue.
This time around we’re presenting nine short prose works and a single poem. The characters are united by several themes: they seek success in love and work; they find themselves in the grip of romantic obsession and preteen confusion; others find themselves points of obtuse (in multiple senses) triangles and objects of surprising affections. All the pieces are told in the first person, lending intimacy and immediacy to the events they describe.
Short fiction has been a mainstay of our queer issues from the very first, showcasing some of the form’s master practitioners. This year is no different. Afro-Caribbean writer Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro won the National Short Story Prize of the PEN Club of Puerto Rico in 2013 for her collection Las Negras. Known for exploring the limits of female characters who challenge hierarchies of power, here she traces a relationship that morphs from bullying to bond. Muscular young teen Elena fights her way into a tough boys’ gang as they pummel the effeminate Ricardo. As she navigates often-confusing social and sexual currents, and faces her own crush on the alluring Johana, her relationships with both the gang members and their target evolve.
The Italian writer Matteo Bianchi, too, is adept at exploring characters who move with tentative steps across unfamiliar territory, often defying expectations along the way. His work Cher upon a Midnight Clear, a “fairy tale for adults,” looks at a little boy’s love of what his parents consider girls’ toys. The prolific Bianchi, whose work also includes an edited volume of American gay fiction in Italian translation, first graced our pages in August 2004 with “Maternal Love,” an antic, affectionate tale of two very different people whose paths cross at the Padua pride parade. He’s one of our favorites, and we’re delighted to welcome him back with a story set in the late eighties. An anxious college student picks up a working man, then finds himself falling for him. As they warily move into a relationship, Bianchi deftly sketches the milieu, showing the jumpy narrator warily maneuvering among friends, family, and fellow students as his feelings for Alessandro deepen. Can these men defy societal and familial expectations to find happiness? As in “Maternal Love,” Bianchi provides a surprising, deeply satisfying answer.
As celebrated Chinese author Lu Min demonstrates, power structures can be inverted and exploited, and boundaries defied. Lu, a rare out lesbian in China, has collected multiple awards for her fiction, which has been translated into nine languages. In “Scissors, Shining” she finds a young apprentice to a village tailor measuring clients and sizing up their relationships with his enigmatic boss. When a neglected wife attempts to interest the tailor in a more intimate assessment, the apprentice finds himself caught in a different sort of calculation. Min deftly captures the woman’s desperation and the tailor’s inexplicable lack of interest through the lens of the apprentice’s innocence, as the bewildered teen struggles to make sense of the emotional turmoil. As Master Song’s tiny shop becomes a site of assumptions overturned and boundaries violated, Min captures the potential for abuse in all hierarchies.
The power structures that provide the mooring for Montenegrin novelist and screenwriter Stefan Bošković’s short story are both personal and professional. In his “Search: Porn” a fading fiction writer arrives at the home of his editor (and former lover) for a dinner that quickly goes pear-shaped. Arlen thinks they’ll be negotiating edits to his short story collection; instead, his editor and the latter’s new girlfriend serve up a demonstrative display, interrupting their embraces only long enough for his editor to announce that he intends not to publish the book at all. Reeling from this double rejection, Arlen brings the evening to a vivid conclusion worthy of 2016 Festival of European Short Stories runner-up Boškovic.
Is outright rejection worse than being strung along? Icelandic poet and novelist Kári Tulinius asks in “Abel’s Autobiography.” Abel falls in love with Jerome, who is in an open relationship with the genderfluid Lionel. Abel’s infatuation with Jerome is soon equaled by his jealousy of Lionel; he turns to spying, stalking, and a singularly poor decision, all related in a breathless syntax that mirrors his headlong obsession.
In “So Long, Luise,” noted French novelist Céline Minard asks what happens when our syntax is not our own. Minard, who has explored topics including space travel, medieval history, and the Western, provides a giddy peek into an elaborate literary hoax. While outlining her will, the narrator, a Parisian celebrated for writing in English, cheerfully confesses that, in fact, her books were written in French; the English versions are translations. She traces the impetus for her imposture to her great love, Paige, an Australian whose mother tongue launched the author’s professional (and personal) triumphs.
Speaking of triumphs, we’re particularly pleased to salute the increasing visibility of queer writers in Korea with a selection edited by star translator Anton Hur. As Hur notes in his exuberant introduction, Korean literature has long had queer undercurrents, but only recently have writers felt free to be explicitly out. Highlighting the work of four contemporary voices, Hur brings us some of the freshest, most exciting work we’ve published.
Lee Jong San’s novel Customer is the first of a trilogy that takes place on a future Earth. The narrator, Suni, comes from a desert region whose residents are known as “worms.” Selected for a scholarship to a prestigious school in a well-to-do city, she begins a romance with her roommate, an androgyne, and encounters the subculture of “customers,” people who undergo a variety of body modifications, or “customs.” In Customer Lee creates a world where people can mutate and enhance their physical forms to match their emotional make-ups.
The body looms large in Lee Hyemi’s poetry, as well, which is characterized by fluidity and immersion. In “The Cupboard with Strawberry Jam” Lee contributes an erotic ode grounded in lush metaphor. Lee has spoken out on sexual harassment, both within Korean literary circles and the global #metoo movement; as with her activism, her poetry recreates and holds space for agency and queerness in female sexuality.
In counterpoint to the work of Lee and Lee, Kim Hyejin’s novel About My Daughter and Kim Bong-gon’s “College Folk” confront the shaming and rejection faced by many who identify as queer, often by those closest to them. In an excerpt from About My Daughter, a widow invites her underemployed daughter to move in, but is less hospitable to a third party. The mother, a caregiver in a nursing home, struggles to accept her daughter’s sexuality and her partner; the younger women, in turn, fight poverty and sexual discrimination. In her portrait of the resistant mother and the stubborn couple, Kim draws a nuanced portrait of a clash both generational and social.
A student saves a professor from scandal, then finds himself in a position to embroil them both in a new one in Kim Bong-gon’s “College Folk.” In an interview with the Korean Literature Institute, the author notes that the story was his first in which he both took his time and included his own experiences, and declares, “it contains my three favorite elements: queer, liberal arts, and romance.”
“Queer, liberal arts, and romance” are some of our favorite elements, too, and we find ourselves in increasingly larger company in this than when our first Queer Issue came out in 2010: same-sex marriage is legal in the US, Ireland, and many other countries, most recently Taiwan; the Edith Windsor case has granted same-sex spouses the benefits of heterosexual couples; Iceland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Serbia, and Ireland have elected openly gay prime ministers, and an openly gay man is among the many declared candidates for the US presidency. Yet Brunei recently declared same-sex activity punishable by stoning; the US military now bars transgender applicants; and the self-professed homophobia of Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, stoked the atmosphere that made it necessary for our Afro-Brazilian contributor Jean Wyllys to flee for his safety. Come what may, rest assured we’ll still be here with stories that celebrate the queer experience in all its plurality. We hope you’ll enjoy the selection we present here.
© 2019 by Susan Harris. All rights reserved.
A sensuous prose poem from South Korean poet Lee Hyemi.
We stood on our tiptoes and fumbled around the top shelf for a taste of those red, red things. With mouths dyed red, we felt like a pair of nipples.
Sister, we must be a cleverly split person. The morning we wore the disheveled green crowns of strawberries and spoke of our first wet dreams under the covers. We laid a chewy seed in every pore, growing recklessly private and gradually tender. In the kingdom for two who sway inside translucent jelly.
If I had a spare season, I would’ve rushed to whisper vulgar words like a bird with a disappearing beak and gifted you, Sister, the sweetest song on the verge of rot. I would’ve squished the all-pink rainbow and called over the morning owl with the strange joy of guilt.
Feeling like there was more to hide now as the sweet stickiness dripped down between my fingers. If I had another pair of lips, another pair of thin mucous membranes, we would’ve been able to talk about the flavors that deepen as they’re mixed together.
But today, simply with our arms spread wide, we experienced our ruddiness of old. Of the days when we loved what was still hidden and sweet.
From Unexpected Vanilla (Moonji Publications, 2016). © Lee Hyemi. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2019 by So J. Lee. All rights reserved.
In this short story by Afro-Puerto Rican author Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro, a tough preteen girl fights for acceptance and finds unexpected kinship.
I've come to the conclusion that purple is the color of secrets. In art class, the teacher insists on teaching us that colors have meanings. Red means passion. White is purity. Green seems to be the color of hope. Nobody speaks of purple but I encounter it so often, accentuating the skin, cheeks, and knees of so many classmates around me, that for a long time I wondered what it meant.
Today I know.
In 1969, Ricardo Santos and I are not friends. Our loathing is mutual. Every chance I get, I throw his schoolbooks on the floor in the middle of class. Ricardo imitates me and does the same to mine. If circumstances allow, I break every possible pencil he owns. Then Ricardo does the same with my crayons. I even spill the glass of milk that is included in his lunch, while he does the same over my slice of raisin bread.
I take part in the first and second thrashing that various students give him in one of the corners of school. I knew they called Ricardo mujercita, but that wasn't why I joined in on beating him up. I did it because he's always challenged me in the style of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. If I tear his ruled paper in half, he does exactly the same with mine. If I rip his uniform shirt, he tries to do the same, or at least makes a hole in my plaid skirt. If I stick out my foot so he trips during recess, Ricardo discreetly waits for me in the hallway that leads to the library and makes me fall there. Since he doesn't seem to fear anything I do to him, I join the little group that gives him the beating.
The group is made up of the scalper's twins, the barber's son El Cano, and also the stepson of the captain of the Cataño ferry, a kid whose arms and legs are always covered in purple bruises. When I accidentally overhear them planning to thrash him, I express my desire to join them. Right away, El Cano denies me entry into the gang. His reasoning is , "You're a girl and a machúa. We ought to beat you next, maybe then you’ll learn that yourself."
To my astonishment, the others protest. They claim that it would be advantageous to use me precisely because I'm butch, a strong girl—and daring. Miguel says that, in the middle of a ferry crossing toward Old San Juan, his stepdad told him to be careful with me because mujerotas like me hit really hard on account of our more masculine hormones. Twin Pedro asks what the hell hormones are, but nobody pays him any attention and the group gossip goes on as they call me strapping, bearded, and a marimacha. I still haven't reacted, mouth agape and with no idea what to say, when the other twin, Andrés, exclaims, "But she's heavy and she has muscles. That's why it'd be good for us to have her in the club, to give big marronazos."
Next I know, everyone’s convinced. They hug me and congratulate me on having been admitted to the club. They even muss my hair in a sign of approval. I’m so happy I even forget how confusing the whole thing had felt.
And that's how, one month before the launch of an astronaut to the moon, we gave Ricardo the beating of his life. The kid defended himself as best he could, but he still wound up pulverized. He didn't come to school for a week.
When he returned, his body was covered in purple bruises, earning him the nickname of Niño Morado, the Purple Kid. Ricardo also had one arm in a sling and a pronounced scratch on his left cheek.
The boys in the gang boast that I threw the strongest punches, but the truth is that I don't remember much.
I guess that the thrill and the adrenaline were to blame for my actions.
Two weeks before watching the moon voyage everyone’s talking about on TV, I discover Ricardo on his knees sucking Pedro's bicha. They're hiding behind a warehouse. To my surprise I see the other twin approach, push his brother to one side, and demand his turn. Pedro pulls up his shorts and straightens his shirt. Andrés unzips himself and pulls out his tiny penis. Then Ricardo opens his mouth again and settles in once more.
Stunned, I move clumsily, and I try to avoid being spotted. The twins don't see me, but Ricardo's gaze latches onto mine. Still sucking that pubescent chunk of flesh, he blinks as if he were sending me a message, begging. It's not very clear to me if he was asking for help or wanting me to leave them alone.
On Monday, at school, El Cano greets me with a punch to the shoulder. He does this in front of the whole group and that makes me mad. It's a habit of his. He hammers on the other guys just like he does with me. But since he doesn't like me, he hits me much harder.
"Why don't they shave off that beard of yours at your house, Elena? We can do it for you at my dad's place, if you want."
"Leave me alone," I shout at him, and run my hand over the wooly hairs of my double chin.
"I'm going to steal your girlfriend," he whispers, grabbing his crotch. "Don't think I haven't seen how you look at Johana."
"I said leave me alone," I shout even louder this time.
"Don't you shout at me, I'm the boss."
Cano's challenge makes my blood boil.
"If you were the boss, they'd be sucking your dick as well. But nobody wants you."
"What is this marimacha talking about?" El Cano demands.
The twins look at each other a few times. They lower their heads and remain silent.
"Come on, you little chicken-shits, talk," he explodes. "Tell me what that pato Ricardo does to you with his little mouth."
What happened next came as a surprise. "He sucked off the rest of you, too?" Miguel asked.
I wanted to ask "what do you mean, too?" but there was no need. Miguel explained that Ricardo's first beating was because he started to do his faggy things to him. "And I didn't want to. I didn't want to," he said, vehemently. The twins started shouting out loud that he had done the same to them. The boss, that is to say El Cano, declared that the time had come to teach Ricardo another lesson.
"That way he’ll learn some respect," he decreed.
Summer slid by in the village, hot and full of excitement. I discover that one can see all kinds of commercial exchanges in the streets, now that we don't have classes. In plain daylight, the cacos sell little bags full of white powder, little bags with crystalline rocks, little bags of green or brown herbs. The prostitutes, adorned with necklaces and earrings, show off their bodies, shimmering with sweat. Lottery tickets are sold, and chicks and hens, scalped tickets, lilies and candles with the image of Saint Lazarus, even collecting debts can be arranged if the chance arises. For example, during one of my walks I notice the barber and Miguel's stepfather embroiled in an argument. They suddenly move in close to whisper things, and it seems like the first man tells the second that he can't pay him. He claims he has few clients and buries his hands in his pockets, only to turn them out to show they're empty. This incontestable gesture of not having even coins on him doesn't go down well with the captain, who shoves him and promises, "I'll come by the barbershop then, for the usual."
Because it’s so hot, the drug dealers open the fire hydrants and all of the kids bathe in the middle of the street, squealing with delight.
I'd like to jump into that stream of water and get all wet with Johana, who I recognize right away frolicking with the other kids from the building. But I can't. I'm on my way to perform an errand.
Today it's my turn to bring some goods to the vet who talks with the mares. They were sent by my mother, who's got a reputation for getting her hands on strange or even illegal things. Inside the bag I'm carrying there's a syringe full of horse tranquilizers. It was explained to me that such things are used in animals and in humans, although they say it can be fatal to people. That's why I should never try it on anyone, I wasn’t to even open it without permission, no squirting it on my fingers to play with it, or even smelling it, nothing. If I did, Mama told me, it would even get into my hair.
The vet's name is Ulises, and according to what people say, he's not a doctor at all. He's just someone who got used to treating the pets of the neighborhood's horse rustlers. From time to time he has to operate on the animals or put them to sleep. Since he doesn't have a license or anything like that, he needs to buy contraband syringes like what my Mama sells him. I give him the package and in exchange Ulises gives me an envelope of money, but not without first showing me how to start conversations with the mares. He explains to me that the stallions are nasty bastards, and that's why he doesn't even say a word to them. But the mares are docile and eager to please, he’s quick to add. He says any old thing to them and they whinny and show off their teeth. To me it seems like the funniest thing ever.
For some unknown reason I decide to stick my hand into the envelope of money, pull out two dollars, and walk toward El Cano's father's barbershop. I see the sun is about to set and it's possible the shop is closed. However, I think it’s worth a shot. Maybe El Cano will take pity and will help me deal with my facial problem. Normally I wouldn't do it, but the sight of Johana left me unsettled.
When I reach the front door I find it closed, but I hear sounds coming from inside. I think that El Cano might be in there, still sweeping up all the hair that's fallen to the floor, since that's the daily chore his father always demands of him. I know because El Cano spends hours on end complaining about having to clean the floor and leave it free of all the hair—gray, straight, curly, or dyed—of all the people who pass through there. I go around to the back and decide to try the rear door.
As I open it, a large, rough man wearing a sailor hat comes out. It's Miguelito's stepfather, the captain of the Cataño ferry. He almost bumps into me because he's a bit drunk.
He tries to stare at me but he is unsteady. Before pushing me aside to continue on his way, he whispers: "Mujerota . . ."
I can't say anything back to him though his comment makes me furious. It all happened too quickly.
Inside, still not finished sweeping the floors clean of hair, I find a Cano who is a bundle of nerves. He pulls up his pants and dries the tears on his cheeks.
"Don't you dare say anything to anyone," he threatens me.
My heart is still beating fast when, spellbound, I see behind the thin strip of fabric of his tank top the bruises that are starting to form on his shoulders.
On July 21, my mother and I eat queso de bola and drink coffee in the living room of the house of Ricardo's parents. There is also guava paste, olives, and soda crackers. We're waiting, together with the rest of the neighbors, for the transmission of Neil Armstrong's moonwalk.
Ricardo's parents are the only ones who have a television and they've gotten the whole old neighborhood used to gathering together to watch events of this type.
The veterinarian who isn't a veterinarian takes advantage of the gathering and thanks my mother, in a low voice, for getting him the xylazine. He's going to need two more syringes very soon because he needs to amputate a leg from the mechanic's mare.
"I owe him a favor, see," he adds. Then he explains that the mechanic helped him to repair his Datsun. So, by way of exchange, he'll try to save the mare's life.
"And cross your fingers that the gangrene hasn't spread to the rest of the poor creature's body," he says.
Mama chews on olives and guava paste as she assures Ulises that there won't be any problems. She has a boyfriend in the San Juan agrocenter who will get the medication for her.
"I'll send it to you tomorrow with the nena."
Both of them look at me and I smile. Although it sounded absurd to me, I realize they're talking about me. I am the nena, the little girlie.
As NASA recounts in English and then a translator explains in Spanish everything happening with the Apollo 11 spaceship, I realize that Johana is leaving the room to go out into the yard. As I munch on a few squares of guava paste, I see out of the corner of my eye the way she greets the Niño Morado. She asks him how he feels. He smiles, nearly recovered. He touches his head and a scar with butterfly stitches over his eye, and tells her he's fine, that he's holding up. Johana says something in a soft voice and Ricardo howls with laughter. Then I hear the phrase "I'm in love" and try to move in closer when Ricardo starts to pull a photo out of his back pocket.
Johana has a look of astonishment. Her eyelashes are fluttering quickly and she flushes a deep red. She seems happy. She’s very pretty when she's happy.
I move away and go back to the table with the sandwiches. Mama hugs me and asks Ricardo's mother if it isn't true that I look better now, after having my beard shaved off. Our hostess agrees, of course. And she adds that the yellow skirt and the patent leather heels look very nice on me. She promises to ask her husband to bring some ribbons from the fabric warehouse where he works, so she can make bows for my hair. Johana's aunt, who has been listening attentively to all this, proposes to take me to the beauty salon one of these Sundays, to cut my bangs—so long as I promise not to get mixed up with “all those gang kids.” When my mother nods, I imitate her.
I look back toward the yard. I try to guess where those two have disappeared to. I walk toward the exit and down the steps. There, hiding behind a few snake-bark bushes, Johana applies red lipstick to Ricardo's mouth.
"I need your advice," I say nervously.
"What do you want to know?"
Ricardo is sickly, he looks like a baby bird and his battered nose is like a pigeon's beak. Johana and her aunt have left. Many of the other neighbor kids’ grandparents and godmothers have gone as well. My mother is chatting animatedly with the owners of the house, who are explaining to her how to make adornments and frills for the curtains, bedroom, and bathroom.
"Why don't you break? How do you do it?"
He chews some gum and plays with some dayflowers on the ground.
"There's nothing to give up, Elena. We just are the way we are."
"And if I want someone but she doesn't want me?"
The Niño Morado pulls out the photograph he's been hiding in secret and shows it to me. It's in black and white, but there is no doubt that the one posing before the camera lens is El Cano.
"I also want someone who doesn't want me," he whispers.
"Then you need to get closer. Little by little. And never give up. And never back down. Just talk. If they listen to you and get used to listening to you, that's already a big step, no?"
I nod and then ask, "Even if they beat you up and make fun of you?"
Ricardo looks me over from head to toe. He sighs and says, "I liked you more when you looked like a boy. You saw yourself as someone braver."
In 1970, Ricardo Santos and I become inseparable. So much so that he sometimes brought the flowers I sent to Johana, agreeing to not tell her who they were from. During the third thrashing the gang gave him, I defended him.
I threw punches left and right until I managed to get the other kids to leave him alone.
From that moment on, El Cano and I declared war. We loathed one another. We glared at one another with infinite hate whenever we were in front of other people. If we found ourselves standing next to one another in line at the cinema or the verbenas, we pushed one another, shoulder to shoulder.
When no one saw us and his father wasn't around, he let me into the barbershop through the back door. The ferry captain is no longer a bother any more, neither drunk nor sober. Not to us nor to anyone else. It's said around the neighborhood that one day he got so drunk that he fell and hurt himself in a very private area. They also say that it had to be amputated, although the biggest mouths claim that, when he woke up from his monumental binge, he started to shout, his voice full of desperation. He shouted that his thing had been chopped off. He'd been knocked out with drugs, he insisted. He lost a lot of blood. He was very sick in the hospital and they relieved him from his job. He's still recovering. One might have thought that his stepson Miguel would have been very sad about this state of affairs, but it turned out that he spent most of his time playing with us, he no longer showed up covered in bruises, and he seemed very happy.
During that same period my mother punished me. And she forced me to spend a handful of days without going out to meet up with the guys. It seems that on my way to bring the order to the veterinarian, I lost one of the two syringes. The mare couldn't be saved.
After everything eventually gets back to normal, El Cano shaves me once more to get rid of the bothersome strands of hair that still grow from my jowls. And so, at the start of the new school year we played lucha libre in secret and even made drawings on construction paper stolen from art class.
El Cano didn't let me talk to him about Ricardo. He made that quite clear the first time I tried.
And he said that if there were rumors going around that they kissed some time, they were just that. Rumors. Lies. I shouldn't pay any attention to them, he insisted.
What he did let me do was talk to him about Johana. And he let me show him the crescent moons I drew and later painted with watercolors. He asked me if the little figure I sketched on every moon was Neil Armstrong making his moon landing. No, I answered. It's me. Me, because when I grow up I want to be an astronaut. Cano asked me to tell him more stories. And he encouraged me to tell him how I imagine Johana's face will look after we share our first kiss.
"The Niños Morados" © Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro. By arrangement with Editorial Egales. Translation © 2019 by Lawrence Schimel. All rights reserved.
An anxious college student falls for a blue-collar man in Matteo Bianchi’s short story.
La stagione dell’amore viene e va
all’improvviso, senza accorgerti
la vivrai, ti sorprenderà.
Love’s season comes and goes
until suddenly you realize
to your surprise, it is your life.
The absurd heat of a May afternoon insinuates itself through my bedroom window to the accompaniment of Electronic’s mongrel mix of guitar and keyboards. I’m studying for my last exam—the last of my university career—and I’m so immersed in the pages of Dynamic Psychology II that I don’t hear the door open. When I finally become aware that my father is standing beside my desk, it’s all I can do not to have a stroke.
“Don’t you knock?”
“I did knock, but with all this noise . . .” He shoots a look over my shoulders to the stereo speakers beyond. For the record, the volume is at a perfectly acceptable level.
But my dad’s not one to argue. He quickly abandons the subject of the music and comes to the real reason he’s here: “I ran into Valeria in town. She asked me if you want to be a poll worker again this year.”
Valeria works in our town’s Hall of Records. This business of working at the polls is strange. My friends in Milan or Pavia have to sign up on a list months in advance in the hope of being chosen. But there are never enough volunteers in our town, and the municipal clerks search until the very last moment to find willing bodies. They even come to your house to ask whether you would mind serving.
They don’t have to work hard to convince me. The first time I worked the polls, I did it solely for the few bucks I earned, but I had such a good time that I started to enjoy it. Since then, I work at all the elections—national, regional, referendums, whatever comes along.
To be honest, my interest is purely sociological. I adore the position of privileged observer that the microcosm of a polling place offers. I find myself dealing with people who, in most cases, I'd never meet. And if I weren’t here, I’d never have any other chance to speak to them either.
In a certain sense, finding the self-confidence to deal with all these strangers is something I have to force out of myself, but in the end I’m rather pleased with the effort.
I think experiences like working at the polls make me feel more like a true citizen of Lentate. Sometimes, watching the couples or the old people who come in alone to vote, I realize how many of the faces are familiar to me, and the sensation I experience is intense, almost a kind of yearning: the recognition of how deeply I am attached to this town, to this community.
But to get back to my father’s question, the answer is: “Yes.”
In our town, voting takes place in a prefab building at the elementary school. Inside the classroom, long tables have been arranged into a horseshoe shape, and the poll workers organize themselves in pairs along the three sides.
In the center, nearly hidden behind the cardboard ballot boxes, sit the precinct director and the secretary.
The precinct director is around forty-five, with a well-clipped beard and tortoiseshell glasses. He’s a kind and formal man who runs through all the rules for the operation of the polling place out loud, as if hoping to acquaint us with his duties and his responsibilities or perhaps, more simply, because the protocol of the situation requires it. He’s a fervent Catholic, and his family seems to be just about his only subject: his wife’s cooking, the computer he’s just bought to help his oldest daughter with her homework, the vacation they’re planning, all the reservations already made, at a hotel in Riccione which, it hardly needs to be said, is a family-run business.
The young man who acts as secretary is one of those monosyllabic professional types. He writes incessantly in the voter registry, carefully copying names and other data into the official records. He has long, soft hair that falls over his forehead, covering his eyes, and though he’s wearing ordinary cotton pants today, I get the impression that he usually goes around in raggedy jeans, which he’s changed for this occasion. He’s an intimidated rebel who leaves every now and then to smoke a cigarette or have a beer in secret.
The other workers include a middle-aged woman and a girl who is working at the polls for the very first time. Her name is Marta, and unlike the secretary, she never shuts up. She’s so worried about making a mistake that she asks questions about literally everything, even about which pen she should use to sign the registry.
And then there is Roberto, who sits next to me. Roberto is slightly younger than I am, and he’s also a student at the University of Pavia. Best of all, he’s gay, though I found that out somewhat by accident: a friend had a brief fling with him. One morning, when I ran into Roberto in the hallway of our department, I invited him to breakfast. While we were waiting for our scalding coffee to cool, we talked.
To tell the truth, Roberto only said two things: “Word gets around, doesn’t it,” and then, lowering his eyes, “I thought I was the only one in Lentate.” His innocence made me laugh, and I drew him a slightly more realistic picture of the way things stood. From that moment, our relationship was solid—more than friends, in fact, we’re brothers and fellow travelers.
Today, too, as we verify the names of the voters on the precinct lists, we can’t help but exchange conspiratorial glances whenever an especially noteworthy voter comes through the door.
It’ll be summer again in a month, but you couldn’t exactly say that this year has flown by. On the contrary. In fact, it’s been glacial, elephantine, exhausting.
And in the meantime, I’ve witnessed a veritable diaspora. Swarms of friends seem to be in motion, finding new places to live, leaving the country. I’m usually the first to say that change is a fundamental condition of human life, but I may be the only one who hasn’t budged an inch. Alberto left his family to move into the city. Marco met an American and fell in love, following him to New York. Claudio, literally overnight, decided that he wanted to go to London (to dance his nights away under the disco balls, to be precise), and then he did exactly that. Chiara, my sister’s best friend, followed an Italian family to Boston to work as their babysitter, but then wound up going to Brazil to get married. I feel like a prime example of small-town inertia.
We’ve come up with a plan for organizing ourselves into shifts for dinner. When I get back to the polling place from my break, I tell Marta it’s her turn.
“No, I’m not going to eat now,” she says. “I’m waiting for my boyfriend and I’ll have supper with him after we close up.”
The woman sitting next to her immediately wants to know more.
“Oh, you’re engaged? And what’s his name? Is he from Lentate? Maybe I know him . . .”
And so, without especially wanting to, we all learn that her fiancé’s name is Franco, that he’s thirty-two, that he lives in town, and that he works as a lawyer in Milan.
The marriage question sparks a good twenty minutes of lively discussion. Naturally, she doesn’t miss the chance to interrogate me (“No, I’m not engaged”) and Roberto (“Me, either.”). My answer is honest, but Roberto’s isn’t. He’s been with another student from the university for more than a year, but that’s probably not what the woman meant when she asked.
And then, speak of the Devil, the lawyer himself appears in the door of the polling place.
Marta runs over to give him a hug and then she introduces him to us. Polite as he can be, the lawyer makes the whole circuit, shaking each hand in turn: Nice to meet you, nice to meet you. And then, so as not to interfere with our work, he goes off to sit quietly by himself in a corner. It’s a silly thing to worry about because it’s 9:30 in the evening, and we’re certainly not going to see any more voters tonight.
I lose myself again in my book, though I get the sense, every time I look up, that the lawyer is staring at me.
Finally, he catches my eye.
“What are you reading?” he asks.
I hold the book out to him. It’s Patty Diphusa by Almodóvar.
“Oh, it’s wonderful. I just finished it myself.”
A light goes off in my head. “You like Almodóvar?”
“Crazy for him. I’ve seen all his films.”
I leave my book on the table and tell the others we’re going outside for a few minutes to talk. My colleagues nod with a certain indifference. They’re already looking forward to making their escape for the evening.
The hallways are crowded with poll workers from the other precincts, all of them bored to tears, smoking and chatting in the hope of hurrying this final, endless half hour to its conclusion.
The lawyer doesn’t look anything like a lawyer. You’d almost be more inclined to say that he worked in a butcher shop: pleasant, agreeable face; blond curls; large hands. Only his serious clothes give the impression that he’s a professional businessman. I don’t own a suit that nice even for going to weddings.
“What else do you like?” I ask him, getting back to the subject of our interrupted conversation.
“What books, do you mean? Wow, all different kinds. Have you read David Leavitt?”
“Well, him I like a lot. And what else . . . let me see what else I’ve read lately . . . Aldo Busi, The Swimming Pool Library, The Kiss of the Spider Woman, and one by Duras, wait . . . what is it called? Blue Eyes . . . no, something about eyes . . .”
“Blue Eyes, Black Hair,” I say, slightly surprised. That’s not a reading list; it’s a queer-studies seminar.
The lawyer smiles.
At this point, I want to be clear about what’s going on. “Am I wrong, or are you trying to tell me something?” I ask.
“You’re not wrong. What are you doing later?”
I shake my head, astounded. “I’m not sure what I’m doing, but I do know what you’re doing. Marta says the two of you are going out to supper tonight.”
“Marta’s tired, she’ll go right to bed. But you and I could go get a drink, have a chance to talk a little more freely.”
I’m speechless. Through the doorway of the polling place I see Marta waving at us, delighted that her lawyer and I are making friends.
He ignores her. Instead, he nods toward Roberto and whispers in my ear, “I see we’re in good company.”
“And I see that you’re very well informed. Any other revelations, while you’re at it?”
The lawyer nods slyly. “Um-hmm.”
Completely incredulous, I wait to hear what’s coming next.
“Our good precinct director is that man with the beard and the glasses?”
“The precinct director is married and has two little girls.”
“Right, and every night at six, before he comes home from the office, he goes off to kill a few hours in the airport parking lot.”
“I can’t believe that.”
“I’ve run into him there a bunch of times. If you think I’m wrong, take a look at his face right now. He knows we’re talking about him.”
He’s right. The precinct director is white as a sheet. The moment my eyes meet his, he averts his gaze and starts rubbing his hands together nervously.
“But how in the world do you know all this?”
The lawyer shrugs his shoulders and arranges his face into a noncommittal expression, suggesting that he knows a lot more than he’s telling, that our conversation to this point has been nothing more than a rather skimpy appetizer.
“We should probably talk about this when things are a little less hectic, hmm?”
He’s shameless, but I’m curious enough to want to see where the conversation goes. We decide to meet in an hour in the café on the piazza, and then I go back in and take my place. When Roberto catches my eye, I gesture toward the president and announce, “We’ve reached a quorum.”
Roberto bursts out laughing. The president stares at his hands. His dirty hands.
As promised, the lawyer is right on time to pick me up at the café. He has an enormous car, just what you’d expect from a businessman who’s doing well for himself. And he doesn’t worry much about maintaining the fiction that we’re going out for a drink: Taking advantage of the darkness, he reaches out and tries to pull me toward him.
“I’ve been looking a long time for a friend like you,” he says.
Politely but firmly, I put his hands back where they belong, and when I speak I am crystal clear: “If what you want is a friend, that’s great. Otherwise, I’m getting out of the car right now.”
He makes a great show of being shocked. “No, no,” he stammers. “What were you thinking? I was just trying to be affectionate.”
“Then you should know that I don’t like people like you. I mean, what about Marta? Why are you misleading her?”
The lawyer gets all serious and stares at the steering wheel. He thought he’d made an easy conquest and instead he wound up getting a tongue-lashing from someone with a community conscience. Because even fags can have a conscience, and it’s high time the lawyer figured that out.
Doing his best to sound convincing, he says, “I’m hardly taking advantage of Marta. I truly do love her, and I intend to marry her.”
“Oh, now I get it. You’re planning to follow in the footsteps of our fine precinct director.”
“That’s not how it is. After we’re married I’ll get my head on straight.”
Oh, for Christ’s sake. I’ve heard this argument a hundred times. Why is it that the repressed ones always have the same predictable repertoire?
“So, did you come out with me because you felt like arguing?” he says.
I shrug my shoulders. “No, I came out with you because I was curious.”
It’s the god’s honest truth. I just wanted to see how far things would go, and now that I’ve determined the answer (all the way to the end; that’s how far), there’s no point in staying.
“If you feel like taking a ride, I’ve got something to show you,” he says.
Out of my mouth comes the word “OK,” though “OK” is not what I feel. I’m tired, and all I really want to do is go home. I have to be back at the polls in the morning and it’ll probably be the middle of the night before we finish up.
The lawyer maneuvers his expensive car toward the beltway. He seems to have calmed down a bit. In fact, he’s making an effort to find neutral ground for conversation—what music do I listen to, where do I like to go dancing, things like that.
A few kilometers later he hits the turn signal and pulls into the travel plaza, but instead of parking in front of the restaurant, he heads for the open lot in the rear.
“Do you know this place?” he asks me.
“I’ve stopped here sometimes to get gas,” I say.
“And you have no idea what goes on here in the back?” I shake my head, no, truly not understanding.
The lawyer stops the car under a roofed area. There are a lot of other cars parked there and all kinds of people are moving back and forth between the parking lot and the small garden that borders it.
“The comings-and-goings here can get pretty crazy,” he informs me. “Especially at night.”
I try to figure out what all these people are doing, though the darkness means I can’t make out very much.
“Let me guess. From inside your car, you see something you like and then you go off behind the bushes to do whatever.”
“Bright boy. I see you’ve figured out how it works.”
Not that it was all that hard. All you needed to do was put two and two together—or maybe twenty and twenty, judging from the size of the crowd.
“Are there always this many people here?”
“Does this seem like a lot to you? Usually there are more.”
We sit there for a while in the darkness of the front seat like we’re watching some kinky Discovery Channel documentary, taking in the strange mating rituals of nocturnal animals. There’s a flurry of cars driving in and driving out, headlights turned off and then turned on again, people walking toward cars and then away from them, only to disappear into the thicket of tree limbs. A series of silhouettes suggests sexual activity we can’t see, that we can only imagine on the other side of the bushes: “the hedgerow creeping o’er and always hiding / The distances, the horizon’s farthest reaches,” as Leopardi put it in his most famous poem.
When he takes me home, the lawyer says, “Well, tonight wasn’t a total waste, right? At least you got to see a place you didn’t even know existed.”
Fine. Let’s leave it at that.
Months go by before I think again about the parking lot behind the travel plaza. In the meantime there’s summer to consider, a quick few days at the beach, and then there’s my thesis, which isn’t exactly writing itself.
And then, on one completely unexceptional evening I’m suddenly overtaken by the curious desire to go back and see what’s going on there. I’m heading home from a film I didn’t manage to see, a preview that Alberto and I tried to attend, standing dutifully in line with about eight hundred others. The tickets ran out before we’d made it halfway to the front. We were both a little depressed as we said good night, and that was when I starting thinking that my evening needed a shot in the arm.
I get onto the beltway, hoping I can remember which exit is the one for the travel plaza. The idea of sexual adventure evidently sharpens my memory and, in fact, I hit it on the first try. The parking area is more crowded than the last time—the lawyer was right. Speaking of which, I wonder whether he’ll be here, too. I make a couple of circuits to reconnoiter the parking area, but I don’t recognize his car.
To be perfectly honest, it’s simply too dark here. I see shadows in motion, but I can’t make out faces. Which really bothers me: How do you figure out whether you’re attracted to someone if you can’t even see his face?
Clearly, it wouldn’t hurt if I were in even remotely the right frame of mind. I’d need to make the effort to get out of the car to get a closer look at these unknown creatures, aided by the weak light of the gas station behind us. As long as I stay stuck in the car, I won’t see much. Obviously.
The truth is that it only works to come to a place like this if you’re already horny and raring to go, whereas all I am is bored. There’s no point in trying to pretend to be turned on when you’re not. Might as well forget about it.
I start the car and drive to the other side of the parking lot, in front of the restaurant. I go inside and order a cup of coffee.
The guy behind the counter nods but seems to be in no hurry to get me my coffee, so while I wait, I take a look around.
Nearby are two girls in trashy makeup who look like bag ladies, but maybe they’re just a couple of teenagers out for a night at the disco, maybe even two of those Saturday-night-massacre types just moments away from a drunken collision—that charming urban cautionary tale the TV news commentators can’t stop talking about.
Besides these potential accident victims, there are two men talking to one another in low voices. Two traveling salesmen on their way home from the daily rat race, their jackets rumpled, ties undone, shirt collars open. I’d like to eavesdrop on their conversation, pick up a few shreds of life on the soul-killing bottom rung of the world of marketing, but they’re talking too quietly and the guy behind the counter is making too much noise with the glasses he’s furiously washing, and I give up.
I always feel a little sorry for the guys who work the rest-stop night shift. They’re always alone, and they’ve got enough work for three.
When I asked for my coffee, I was tempted to add something like, “Take your time.” In fact, I’d tried that once and only once. The guy behind the counter gave me a weird look and said, “Are you screwing with me?” Since then, I place my order and otherwise keep my mouth shut.
My coffee’s ready. As I bring the scalding liquid to my mouth, I see—at the far end of the bar, next to the newspaper rack—someone I hadn’t noticed at first: a man of around forty, drinking a beer directly out of the can.
Damn, he’s hot! I think immediately.
The guy is wearing sneakers, jeans, and a gray T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up. On his left biceps, a military-type tattoo peeks out. He’s got a few days’ growth of beard and his hair is cut short. Overall, the effect is rather threatening—the neighborhood tough.
Still, the sight of him has me more than a little stirred up. To coin a phrase, “I can resist anything, except criminals.”
Our eyes meet for a few seconds. He sets his beer down on the counter and leaves.
I finish my coffee.
There’s a light breeze cooling the air this late September evening, a whispered promise of the autumn that’s nearly here or an invitation to stay out all night long, a reassurance that there’ll be no more of the obnoxious heat that has, up until a few days ago, made sleep impossible.
The nocturnal landscape of the travel plaza provides a curious view, fascinating in its own way. The headlights of cars as they approach, the station attendant locked away in his bulletproof glass cage, the drivers getting out to fill up at the self-service pumps.
I try to resist, but I can’t help thinking that all the people I see must be on vacation. It’s an idea left over from my childhood: When I was little, I never saw places like this except when my parents were taking me to the mountains for vacation, and since then the two concepts have been joined in my mind.
I walk back toward my Panda only to find that parked alongside is the man with the beer. He’s standing outside his car, leaning against the hood and calmly smoking a cigarette as if he were waiting for someone. In fact, it’s as if he were waiting for me. He doesn’t even give me enough time to get the key into the lock.
“Hi,” he says.
“Hi,” I say back. I barely have the courage to look at him.
“What’s your name?”
I tell him, and then I think immediately: idiot, you could at least have made up a fake name. But it’s already done.
“Alessandro,” he says, holding out his hand. I shake it and look him in the eyes. Close up, he’s that much sexier and that much less reassuring.
“This is your first time here, isn’t it? I haven’t seen you before.”
It’s an absurd comment to make in a place like this. Travel plazas, by their very nature, are places people come to only once, each one so similar to all the others that they blur together, a series of islands you travel over to get back on the right road. They’re stops, not destinations. But he obviously means something else, a reference to a secret geography that few people are allowed to see. He knows I know.
“Yes, it is,” I admit.
“Are you from around here?”
I nod. I tell him the name of my town. “Do you know it?”
“And you?” I ask.
“I’m from Magenta.”
My eyes contract involuntarily, probably because of how turned on I am, but he interprets it differently.
“What’s the matter? Don’t you believe me?”
I flinch slightly. “Of course I believe you.”
“What a face! You think I’m making it up? Hold on a second.”
He slips a hand into the right pocket of his jeans and takes out a leather wallet. He opens it and holds his license out to me.
“No, come on. There’s no need for that. I’ll take your word for it.”
“Go ahead and check,” he orders. “The name, my address, it’s all true.”
I glance at the document and at the evidence it provides. But I look even more intensely at its owner. This man has seriously taken me by surprise. There’s a certain gruffness about him, but at the same time he seems to be doing everything he can to make me trust him.
I hand back his license and say it again: “I believe you.”
We start to talk. I tell him about the lawyer and about how I came to find out about this place. He has a lot more to say than I do, and in a few minutes manages to offer me the condensed version of his entire existence. He tells me that he was married but has been separated for a few years. He has a son who is nearly fifteen. He lived by himself for a while and now he’s back with his mom while he looks around for an apartment to rent.
Life is so strange.
Only a little while ago I’d have been afraid to approach this man, and now here I am listening to the details of his private life.
“Why are you telling me all this?”
He holds me in his gaze, unwavering. He doesn’t answer my question, but he does say, “Look, I’d like to see you again.” And then he adds quickly, as if he were afraid of instant rejection: “How about if we do this. Monday evening I’ll be back here again at the same time. If you feel like it, you know where to find me.”
“Okay.” I turn and get back into my car.
“How old are you?” he asks me through the open window.
“You seem younger. Do you work?”
“No, I’m still in college. And what do you do?”
“I drive cranes. You know, I load and unload building materials from trucks, move them into the warehouse. It’s a construction firm.”
But I’m not listening to him anymore. I think: a crane operator! Wait until I tell Alberto!
Over the next few days I try not to make any more of my encounter with Alessandro than it is. I’m not sure I’ll go back again. In fact, I’ve made plans on Monday evening to hang out with a friend. I tell myself right up until the last moment that I have no real desire to see Alessandro again, as if the erotic fantasies I’ve been having for a week are nothing more than an insignificant blip on my hormonal radar. But the moment I notice that it’s getting close to the time when Alessandro will be at the travel plaza, all my rational barriers crumble. I stand up, set my Coke on the table, and tell Micaela, “Sorry, but I’ve really got to get going.”
“You mean now?”
I give her a quick kiss and hurry out of her apartment, down the stairs, out onto the street, into my car, and finally onto the beltway.
When I land at the travel plaza, Alessandro is already there, a smiling replica of the other night. He’s smoking a cigarette, propped up against the hood of his Lancia.
“I was afraid you wouldn’t come,” he says.
I spread my arms wide as if to say: And yet, here I am.
“Want to go?” he asks.
I get into his car and let myself be driven.
On the way to meet Alessandro, I’d asked myself what we’d talk about once we were together. In fact, our conversation seems to be stumbling along. He tells me all about his Lancia—when he bought it, how many miles it has on it. He tells me the precise number, but I can’t tell from his tone whether that’s a lot or a little. I don’t understand a damn thing about cars. I nod, vaguely.
I tell him about the university, about what I’m studying, but I’m not really sure he cares all that much about the fact that I’m getting ready for my exams in Dynamic Psychology.
Let’s be frank: We’re two strangers who are pretending to know each other.
And yet: The seductive tone of his voice when he talks to me is more than a little exciting. Every once in a while he drops a word in dialect into the conversation, which gives me enormous pleasure.
What I’ve discovered is that dialect, for me, is the language of deep feeling. It’s the language my parents use in their moments of greatest emotional engagement: when they’re most affectionate with one another, when they argue. It’s the language they were raised with, the language whose roots lie deep inside them. To tell the truth, I haven’t been aware of this for long. The realization came to me one day when I watched my father cuddle a neighbor’s newborn son. He folded the baby into his arms, whispering small, tender praises in dialect into its ears. As I watched, I felt myself transported back to my own childhood and to the memory of his voice as it transmitted his affection to us, his children. And I understood then and there, not without a certain amount of cultural embarrassment: dialect is one of the languages my heart speaks.
I’m distracted by the direction my thoughts have taken. Alessandro is certainly aware of it because he’s stopped talking. I suddenly realize I have no idea where we are. We’ve been driving for more than half an hour along roads I don’t recognize, passing small, nearly forgotten towns and dark tracts of countryside.
I must be out of my mind. I’m letting some guy I don’t even know drive me to some completely deserted place. He might be a psychopath, a serial killer, about to stop the car and chop me into pieces. Nobody knows I had a date with him tonight, and no one would ever find me.
But the truth is, I’m not the least bit scared. I’m sick of guys who act like gentlemen in public but whores in the bushes. By now I understand: When a person tells you his whole life story simply because he wants to show you he’s sincere or asks to see you in a way that makes clear you’re free to accept or refuse, then he’s someone worth trusting.
“Where are you taking me?” I ask.
“A quiet place I know of.”
“It’s pretty far, huh.”
“No, not at all. We’re practically there.”
We’re practically nowhere. A dirt road narrows and then disappears into a plowed field where the bottom of the river valley flattens out.
Alessandro shuts off the engine, turns, and looks at me.
A moment of utter stillness passes in silence, and then our mouths meet, his tongue finding its way between my lips the moment I open them.
With a single, synchronized movement, my car seat tips back and his body is against mine.
After that, everything happens faster, almost in a kind of frenzy: gym shoes kicked off, his sweatshirt pushed up, my shirt pulling out of my pants, jeans coming down, hands everywhere.
Alessandro makes love tenderly but with genuine hunger. He’s as delicate in his individual movements as he is daring in the way he positions our bodies. I can’t help but enjoy the silent acrobatics we pull off in the tight space of his car. It thrills me to discover parts of his body that I wouldn’t have believed I would touch the very first time we were together.
Our love takes place in silent exploration.
When I come, I feel the need to draw the moment into myself with the greatest intensity I can manage, because sexual chemistry as overwhelming as this is rare in casual encounters.
When we return to reality, the air between us has changed. We’re relaxed and happy, conscious of the incredible sense of togetherness that only sex can create in such a short time.
Now we talk about private things, about failed love affairs, about choices we’ve made in life. Alessandro seems to be enjoying the third degree I’m subjecting him to: questions about his marriage and about how he came to make such radical changes in his life. He answers me with the genuineness of a man who has figured out a way to survive life’s earthquakes with his self-awareness intact.
Back at where I’ve left my car, though, he’s the one to ask the final question: “So when do you think I might catch your next appearance?”
“Thursday?” I blurt out. The truth is, I don’t have anything to do tomorrow or the next day either, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to see each other again so soon. Even a casual fling has a timing that needs to be respected.
We settle on that and kiss each other good-bye.
When I get back to the house it’s the middle of the night, but I run into my mother in the kitchen. I watch her as I drink a glass of water before turning in, and I wonder what it’s like for straight guys, on their way home from having sex, when they see their parents again. Do they feel embarrassed? Are they ashamed? Or, on the other hand, does a sense of their own sexual vitality leave them drunk, ecstatic with the omnipotence of being young and alive?
As for me, as I slip under the covers I stubbornly force myself to suppress the annoying sensation that dogs me in situations like this one: The unbearable feeling that I’ve betrayed someone.
The life of a homosexual man in a small town is made up of minor dramas, an ongoing soap opera of doubt: Should I say it or shouldn’t I? Like a surveyor without a compass, he lives in a permanent state of uncertainly regarding the borders between individual freedom and respect for others. Where does his own right to live as he pleases begin and when must he recognize the need to respect those who are close to him?
And when “those people” are his own parents, the surveyor risks losing his mind entirely. In the end, he’s hemmed in on all four sides. Every step is risky, and he lives with the sensation—terrifying—that his own happiness is a weapon that might go off at any moment, scorching everyone around him.
Marco comes back to Italy today for a couple of weeks.
I go to pick him up at the airport and find him in fine form, radiating with conjugal, made-in-the-USA happiness. I let him pour out all the details of his new life—his job, his apartment on the twenty-third floor, the New York gay scene, and above all else: Richard, Richard, Richard. In the midst of this river of information, he pauses to insert a question: “And you?” But he doesn’t stop long enough to give me a chance to answer. He’s too full of his news to be interrupted. He’s absolutely got to tell me everything instantly.
It’s only when the question “And you?” comes back around again for real that I blurt out: “I met someone.”
“Noooo! And you haven’t said anything about it? Tell me everything!?”
I tell him about Alessandro and how it happened. Marco is overjoyed, but I hardly think the simple fact that I’ve met someone is worth that much excitement.
“I’m so happy you’ve got a boyfriend,” he says.
“But he’s not my boyfriend,” I explain. “We’re just going out.”
Let’s try to be realistic.
OK. So Alex is honest. OK, so he’s very sweet. But that’s really all anyone can say at this point. Sometimes it’s still difficult to find common ground for a simple conversation.
We’re too different. Way too different.
OK, too, that he’s drop-dead handsome and that he makes me see stars in bed.
But we’re too different. Really, we are.
“Some guy named Alessandro called for you,” my mother says when I get back to the house. And then immediately: “Who is he?”
That’s strange. She never wants to know anything about my friends. She’s used to getting phone calls from people she’s never heard of.
“A friend of mine, why?”
“I don’t know. He had such a strange voice. I mean, it sounded sort of . . .”
I know what she’s trying to say. Alessandro has a deep voice, like a grown-up man’s. Certainly nothing like the voices of my friends from town, my classmates from the university, or the guys I meet at the disco. It’s the voice of a man fifteen years older than me.
I look at her, waiting for her to finish the sentence.
“. . . rough,” she says finally.
Now she’s the one looking at me. She’s asking herself what I’m doing with a man whose voice is rough. I shrug my shoulders and go into my room to resurvey my perimeters.
I still haven’t finished settling my debt with the university in Pavia. I have to graduate, and I’ve only got a week left to turn in my thesis.
I have an appointment with my thesis director at his office, but he hasn’t arrived. Four other people are also waiting to see their professors—four girls, it hardly needs to be said. Who knows why so few guys major in psychology.
As I leaf through my notes, I deliberately listen in on their conversation: Scenes from real life.
“No, listen to what happened to a friend of mine. So, her boyfriend was supposed to leave for the military and she really didn’t want him to go. So finally she decided to let herself get pregnant. She pretended she was still taking the pill, and when he found out that she was expecting, guess what! He left for the military anyway and now he doesn’t even want to marry her!”
“What a bastard!” The girls are unanimous in their opinion. “Men never want to accept their responsibilities.”
I watch them through lowered eyelids, not believing they’re serious. These are the psychologists of tomorrow. Poor patients, poor public health service, poor everyone.
They look back at me with a certain measure of contempt, as if they had spotted a man who refused to accept his responsibilities, I suppose.
When my professor arrives, I leave the girls to their righteous frenzy and, nearly relieved, slip through the door of his office. I’ve been waiting for hours and I don’t feel like wasting time with pleasantries. I get right to the point of my visit: “So, Professor, have you read my thesis?”
He observes me through the thick lenses of his glasses. “What did you say your name was?”
Of course he doesn’t remember my name. “It’s the thesis on images of childhood in advertising. Have you read it?”
“Ah, that one. No, actually, I haven’t.”
“What do you mean? I’ve only got a week left and I still don’t have your review!”
“Listen, if I had to read all the theses they give me to read, I’d never leave the house. But there’s no need to worry. I’ll be sure to look it over before your defense. When did you say that was?”
All the way home on the train I’m furious. As the date gets closer, the tension has gotten harder to ignore: I can’t sleep much, I’m anxious, I’ve lost the ability to concentrate on even the smallest thing. The idea that my director has practically ignored my thesis is giving me heart palpitations. I’d happily murder him. Or turn him in to the department, which would have about the same impact on my professional career.
In the afternoon I try to reorganize my notes and my thinking, but it’s all but impossible. The phone rings. On automatic pilot, I reach out and pick up the receiver, though my mind is elsewhere.
Alex’s voice shakes me out of my torpor like a sudden gust of wind.
“Oh, it’s you. Hi.”
“What’s wrong?” I have to admit that he already knows me that well. All he needs is a “Hi” to recognize something isn’t right. In the background I hear metallic sounds and a confusion of voices. He’s calling me from work.
“Nothing . . .”
“Things not going well at school?”
I love this about him, that he calls the university “school” and my exams “tests,” and that my somewhat random class schedule surprises him. (“How come you didn’t go to school today?” he asked, the first few times, amazed to find me studying at home.)
“They’re terrible,” I say.
He’s quiet for a few seconds. Then he says, “Look, I’m going to hop on the motorcycle and come over.”
I’d like to tell him that there’s no need for all that, but he’s already hung up.
A half hour later he’s ringing my doorbell.
“Come down and I’ll take you out for a ride!”
Go out now? With all the studying I still need to do? This is completely irresponsible, I tell myself as I pull on my helmet.
Enough already. I need to put an end to the self-torment. What I ought to do is focus on how fast we’re going on the turns, on the trees that whiz by as we pass, on the roar of the motor, on the reassuring warmth of the body I have wrapped in my arms.
Alex takes me to the banks of the Ticino. He stops near a gravel beach and we sit down on the expanse of white stones, completely deserted for kilometers. It’s the beginning of October and the air is chilly, but I barely notice. I’m still reeling with surprise. With one simple gesture Alessandro has turned the day into a vacation. I’m suddenly aware of the mystery that lies at the heart of our relationship.
For years, I believed that a relationship between two people was based on mutual interests, on the books they’d both read, on trips they’d planned together, and it’s only now that I understand: Love is a much more concrete concept. It’s a person who takes you away for two hours and transports you to another universe. It doesn’t matter whether that universe is a ride on his motorcycle, an isolated beach, or in his arms.
I’m in love.
How in god’s name has it taken me so long to figure it out?
Alex gets up and takes me by the hand. I cling to him as we stroll through the woods. We talk about little things, and every once in a while he says something silly to make me laugh. When he leans casually against the trunk of a tree, the urge becomes too great to resist. I put my arms around him and he answers with a kiss. We take turns pulling each other’s clothes off, his lips never leaving mine. In a few moments we’re half-nude and making love in a sea of green.
The world around us is silent and far away, a respectful planet that has finally found its proper orbit.
I quit studying and I stop reorganizing my notes.
At night, I’m sleeping great.
The day of my thesis defense seems like one big joke. Worse than that: a farce. Professors talking about a document they’ve never read. Assistant professors who keep checking their fingernails while I make my presentation.
I call Alex from the snack bar at the university.
“I got 110 out of 110, but not honors,” I tell him.
“I’ll make sure you get your honors tonight,” he says.
I burst out laughing, so loud they probably hear me in the Dean’s office.
At this point, what’s going on between me and Alex becomes official. We start going out as a couple to movies, discos, parties. My friends react with frank amazement. Most of them can’t imagine how two people so completely different can be together, but I would have guessed they’d take it that way.
Alberto, as usual, needs weeks to get up the courage to have a conversation with Alex. He’s so shy and reserved with new people that he sometimes makes me irritable. I practically have to push him into Alex’s lap before he makes up his mind to speak. When they finally get to know each other, though, Alberto gives me his cautious endorsement.
Massimiliano, on the other hand, is crazy about Alex practically from the moment they meet. If there’s anyone capable of appreciating Alessandro, he’s the one. Deep down, Massimiliano has always been an ardent supporter of culturally mixed couples, and it was he who came up with the now-famous dictum: “Who gives a damn if he doesn’t know poetry. I’m poetic enough for two people!”
They meet each other one evening at a party and spend the whole time chatting like old friends. Every time I look in their direction, Massimiliano makes a great show of sending cinematic glances my way, his eyes sparkling dramatically. The minute Alex goes off to get a beer, Massimiliano catches up with me and whispers, “Honey, if he had one more muscle, they’d arrest you for bigamy,” a play on that old joke from a Marilyn Monroe film.
Claudio and Marco are still out of the country, and I’ll have to wait until they get back to hear their comments.
My sister is the only one left.
There’s just one place where young people in Lentate go that even dimly resembles a real bar, a kind of a diner with small Formica tables, posters of postmodern art on the walls, video games, one of those machines that checks your biorhythms, and an enormous TV screen tuned to European MTV via satellite.
Alex and I come here a lot when we don’t feel like driving all the way into Milan.
On this particular evening, I’ve even convinced my sister to come so I can finally introduce her to my boyfriend.
Winning Caterina over, I think, is going to be the biggest hurdle.
I can barely imagine two people less alike. As much as Alessandro is spontaneous and free-spirited, she’s intellectual and reserved.
My sister is the kind of person who saves all year long so she can go to London for the summer to study English, and what’s lovely is that she really does go to study English. The other students who end up in England couldn’t care less about studying the language; they’re thinking about their vacations. But not her. She goes to the library, to the theater, to stores where the only thing they sell is tea. And then she comes back home sounding better than Helena Bonham Carter in a Merchant Ivory film. What else does she have to learn, I wonder each time she leaves. But she’s always been that way, meticulous to the letter. All you have to do is set one foot in her room. It’s not the room of a twenty-year-old. It’s a museum dedicated to film: black-and-white posters with the faces of virtually unknown actors, original advertisements for French films, scrapbooks and little boxes where she saves every single ticket of every single movie she has ever seen. And then there are the books that cover her shelves, lined up one against the other according to a rigid and maniacal system that manages to take into account the authors’ nationalities, the colors on the jacket, and the size of the book. My sister does with books what Mondrian did with color, only with greater attention to detail.
Clearly, the idea of such a person meeting a crane operator who speaks in dialect and doesn’t drink anything but beer has me a bit agitated. At best, I’m expecting some friction.
And now C and I are sitting face to face. The entrance to the bar is behind me so that I can’t see who’s coming through the door, but she can. Alessandro should show up at any minute.
Caterina keeps her eyes glued to the door and every now and then she says, “I bet that’s him!” I turn a hundred and eighty degrees to catch the entrance of a random guy wearing a windbreaker or some bank teller in street clothes. No, we’re not even in the ballpark, not by a long shot.
At some point I see her narrow her eyes and she exclaims, “Don’t tell me it’s that guy!” From the way she says it and the expression on her face, it’s clear I don’t even need to turn around: It’s him.
Alessandro gives me a cuff on the neck by way of a greeting and he sits down. He shakes my sister’s hand. “I’m Alex,” and she introduces herself. The only one who finds himself with absolutely nothing to say is me, appalled as I am by Alex’s new look. He’s shaved his head down to the skull, and he’s wearing a green, quasi-military bomber jacket. I can only think of one word to describe him, and that’s “hoodlum.”
He’s going to do more than surprise my sister, he’s going to send her into a coma.
And yet: Look at the two of them, cooing like a couple of pigeons. Oh, I’m so happy to meet you, my brother has told me so much about you, what’ll you have, a beer, then I’ll have a beer, too, thanks.
A beer? My sister is about to have a beer with this quasi skinhead who is supposed to be my boyfriend?
I can already see myself trying to explain this to my friends. No one’s going to believe me. Not one single person.
Tonight, the Bar Jean Genet in Milan is featuring neither boy strippers nor a recital by one of the TV dancers from the Domenica In variety show, but rather (imagine such a thing!) a political meeting. Nando Dalla Chiesa, the man who may well be the city’s next mayor, has agreed to a meeting with gay voters.
The idea that political candidates have started to consider the gay population a force to be reckoned with cheers me up considerably and makes me think that even our small country may be taking its first steps toward real political and cultural evolution.
The room where the meeting is taking place is very crowded. The usual faces are there, but there’s also a bunch of people I’ve never laid eyes on before—and I don’t mean just at the Jean Genet but not anywhere else either. Obviously, politics have managed to reach even those who consider themselves somewhat outside the usual gay circuit. That’s got to be good.
It’s a very lively evening. With a candor that is almost touching, the mustachioed Dalla Chiesa starts out by admitting his ignorance on the subject, but then, with sincerity and genuine engagement, he faces the audience’s questions (and a not inconsiderable number of outright challenges). If he’s elected, he promises solemnly, the city will co-sponsor the gay film festival, something that has, up until now, always been denied, and he promises to work toward legalizing same-sex unions.
The meeting’s climax comes when a young man grabs the microphone and proposes an historic exchange: “I’ll give you my vote if on June 28th you’ll come out and march with the rest of us on Gay Pride Day.” Dalla Chiesa laughs and takes the man’s hand. It’s a deal.
After a long wait, I feel happy politically. For the first time, it seems to me that the things we’ve been asking for may have found a receptive ear.
Satisfied, I look around me, searching in the eyes of those nearby for some confirmation of my enthusiasm, but I find little optimism. Years of empty promises have made us cautious, and that won’t be easily conquered. I can understand. What I can’t understand is the idiocy of the younger people here, turning up their noses and giggling like runway models.
There’s a perfect example at the next table. Four young guys wearing Dolce & Gabbana T-shirts, their hair smeared with gel, carrying on a conversation I’d expect only from people whose brains had leaked out their ears.
“He’s just another clone with a mustache, and I’m not voting for one of them. There’s already way too many running around.”
“I’m going to vote for Fini. He’s a right-winger, but he’s so handsome.”
“Except that he’s not running for mayor.”
“OK, well then I’ll vote for the Northern League. At least it’s a new party.”
I listen to them, dismayed and furious. I feel rage piling up on top of me like whipped cream on a sundae. I’d like to stand up and smack all four of them, but then I’m struck with a flash of sociological marketing genius. I go over to where the little group is still in the middle of their discussions and I say, “Did you guys know he’s the brother of the host of Forum?”
They look at me in consternation. “The girl who does that courtroom show on Channel 5?”
The four lunatics turn back to have another look at the candidate, observing him now with new eyes, as if, by a simple act of family osmosis, the glamour of television fame had descended over him like a halo.
“Well, he should have said something!”
At this point, it’s time to leave. The meeting is winding down but, above all, I don’t especially want to hear their final word on the subject. Even if my little trick managed to deliver four votes to the candidate, I don’t want to be held responsible for it.
I wouldn’t wish four votes like those on anyone.
Italy. Long may she wave.
Alex and I decide to go away for a few days. Doesn’t matter where—just an excuse to take a mini-vacation, which we’ve never done together. So we jump on his motorcycle and head for the lake district.
Traveling on a motorcycle brings a special exhilaration with it, particularly when you’re doing it for the first time, as I am. We move from one small town to the next with no specific plan. We stop for an aperitif, to eat some pizza, to dip our feet into the lake. Well into the evening we choose a motel and go inside to make love. And then we fall asleep almost immediately.
I wake up in the middle of the night and, after pointlessly tossing and turning for a while, I go out onto the tiny balcony to get some air. I lean against the railing and let my gaze take in the entire panorama: the silhouette of the mountains cutting irregular shapes into the deep, electric blue of the sky, the lights shimmering on the lake, the ripples reflected in the motel’s swimming pool. It would be a scene straight out of a David Leavitt novel, if only the name of the town weren’t Prunelle della Val Brembana. But my life has always been more real than the books I read.
I turn and look back into our room.
Alessandro is deeply asleep. He’s pushed the sheets off and is lying on his side, completely nude. For a few moments I study the curves of his body, the perfect musculature of his back and his arms, the torso rising and falling as he breathes, his hibernating sex, his thin legs.
As I watch him sleep, I try to call up memories of the significant moments in our relationship, and yet all that comes to mind are a series of disconnected flashbacks, empty of meaning.
I see the two of us making love in Alberto’s bed one day when he was away and had left me the keys. I remember that Alex was turned on, but also distracted—and it was only after I insisted that he tell me what was wrong that he admitted, almost shamefaced, that he had gotten stupidly excited by the sight of our reflections in the wide mirror on the bedroom wall.
Or I remember the afternoon when, as we left my house, we shouted “See ya later!” in unison as the door closed behind us. I looked at him and asked, “Correct me if I’m wrong, but did you just shout “See ya later!” to my mother.
“You’re not wrong.”
“Since when have you and she been on such friendly terms?”
And that was that.
Scenes like that.
I ask myself, maybe for the first time, whether I really want to spend my life with a man like him. Whether he’s the one I want, whether I really want to share my life with anyone. I get no answer, and I start to feel the cold moving in against my shoulders, urging me back to bed. As if he’d been awake all along and waiting to welcome me in, Alex folds me against his chest. The only clear thought I manage to have is this: Perhaps I’m not ready yet to plan out my entire future, but right now these are the arms I need around me.
Almost without my being aware of it, it’s time for another birthday.
According to the tradition we’ve established, I send my parents out for dinner and for an evening at the movies so that we can have the house to ourselves for the usual, enormous crowd.
The presence of so many people who’ve come together for the purpose of celebrating my aging process is disorienting. I want to talk to everyone, properly greet all the friends I see only once a year, catch up on all the events of their lives that have taken place in my absence. But I have to respond to the intercom, to the telephone, to my guests’ requests: we’re out of wine, where’s the coffee, there are only three bottles of gin—what the hell kind of party is this? In the end, I spend the evening like a schizophrenic merry-go-round: five seconds with this person, five seconds with the next.
My sister and Chiara are helping me pass out hors d’oeuvres and cake while Betty is making the rounds of the rooms with a video camera. That’s her birthday gift—renting the camera equipment and creating a video scrapbook of the party. She plants herself in a strategic location near the front door and interviews the guests as they arrive.
Even the most unwilling are caught off guard and end up answering Betty’s questions before they manage to slink off to join the party. Then there are the others. The minute they realize they’re being filmed, they pose like matinée idols and scream, “Ta da!” feigning a blaze of trumpets and the roar of a delirious crowd. (No need to say whom I mean, right Claudio?)
A few at a time, everyone shows up.
Alberto is the first, accompanied by Roberto, his new roommate, and by Massimiliano, dressed to the nines in a blue shirt and a tie, looking every bit the fine, upstanding young man that he most certainly is not.
Next appear Maurizio and Marciano, a brand-new couple and, in keeping with the way these things tend to go, still in that phase of wistful looks, hand-holding, stolen kisses, and little hugs, which go on for the entire party.
Jammed into a single car, Riccardo, Cecilia, Paola, and Paolina arrive from Pavia, a regular troupe of friends from the psychology department whom I haven’t seen for . . . six months? A year? Big hugs and the excitement of prodigal children returned home at last.
And then—everything in due time, right?—a bunch of other people arrive at once, all acting like divas trying to dodge the TV cameras, incognito stars outrunning the paparazzi.
The Saccingo trio is unquestionably the most theatrical. They’ve assembled a look like something out of a French film from the 1940s—the two girls are wearing, respectively, a striped T-shirt à la Jeanne Moreau in Jules et Jim and a black femme fatale dress, while Saccingo himself—the one who has given the group his name—has a hat on his head that’s pure Jean Gabin. Recently they’ve been on a Mano Negra kick and for the last month have been following the French band from concert to concert throughout Italy. They even met Oscar, the band’s lead singer, and they can’t talk about anything else. Their ancient Citroen has been rebaptized “The ManoMobile.” They’re comic-book characters come to life, and they know it.
Nearly hidden behind an enormous bunch of roses, the faces of Monica and Thomas peek out. She’s five months pregnant and her belly is really starting to show. The women immediately surround her to ask how she’s doing and to carry on the kinds of conversations that women only have with other women. Thomas, a handsome hunk of a man, especially tonight with the way his blue sweater brings out his eyes, tries at first to participate in the discussion, but then he decides it’s wiser to extract himself and go get something to drink. Over the course of the evening, virtually every one of my gay friends asks me, “What about that blond German guy?” and I have to disappoint them. “It’s pointless. He’s married to my cousin. Happily.” Sighing, they put on a brave face and go over to Monica to ask her when the baby’s due. I can’t tell if they’re trying to be thoughtful or if they’ve just decided to pin their hopes on the next generation.
The last to arrive, of course, are Dario and Piero. As they’re getting out of their identical coats, they say, “I guess we might be a little late . . .” Of coooourse not! How could anyone imagine such a thing?
And with their arrival, the portrait is complete.
Even with all the windows flung open, it’s still hot with so many people in the house.
Chiara, sitting on my bed, lifts the edge of her skirt to cool herself off. She’s just gotten back from Brazil, leaving her husband behind, apparently for good.
Claudio is in Italy, too, but only briefly. He’s on his way back to London the day after tomorrow. He eyes Chiara as she fans herself and then he asks, “What are you doing? Airing the place out before you rent it?”
She lets out a sharp shriek of laughter and declares: “I’m back on the circuit, sweetie. I want to make sure no one has any doubts about what he’s getting.”
“Fabulous!” he observes. “We deserve another gin and tonic,” and he goes off to pour them a drink.
Betty, who tirelessly continues filming with her video camera, suggests that it might be time to open the gifts. “While there’s still someone sober,” she adds.
She’s right. Better get it done sooner rather than later.
The opening of the gifts is the centerpiece of the evening. We gather in one of the rooms and an assistant, chosen at random from among the guests, hands me the packages. Each gift is greeted with an “Ohhh!” of admiration along with a variety of vulgar comments and slightly hysterical shouting. The ritual could drag on for another half an hour: everyone wants to leaf through the books, try on the sweaters, listen to the CDs, read the cards. The escalating curiosity threatens to evolve into ungovernable chaos.
Thank you, thank you, and thank you a thousand times over for the catalog from The Andy Warhol Museum, for the ceramic statue of the Holy Virgin, for the unauthorized biography of Barbie, for the New Order CD, for the Oxford Dictionary of Saints and Martyrs, for the plastic tie, for the book of Fernando Pessoa’s poems, for the poster of that bare-chested bricklayer, for the Pierre&Gilles T-shirt. It’s phenomenal, all of it. And now . . .
I’ve left Alex’s gift for last. It’s wrapped in thin paper and feels like a small box. Could it be a pen? I ask myself as I open it. No. It’s a pair of eyeglasses in a clear plastic frame, vaguely psychedelic in design. I don’t understand. Why would he give me eyeglasses? There’s a card with an explanation: “If you’re with someone like me, you must be half-blind.”
No, really, but this . . .
I raise my eyes to meet his. He smiles and blows me a kiss.
I feel myself starting to choke up.
The people around me are getting impatient. “So what is it? Let us see! Read the card!” but I find myself nearly paralyzed.
I wish I could find something to say by way of an explanation or at least that I could manage to look at my friends directly, but my eyes are starting to mist over and I’m seeing through a kaleidoscope of love and affection, the details of individual faces lost in a confusion of color.
My god. I’m happy.
"The Lost Language of Crane Operators" first published in Generations of Love by Matteo B. Bianchi. © 2016 by Fandango. By arrangement with MalaTesta Literary Agency, Milan. Translation © 2019 by Wendell Ricketts. All rights reserved.
A village tailor, a lonely client, and the shy apprentice caught in the middle, from a novel by Lu Min.
Listen to Lu Min read "Scissors, Shining" in the original Chinese.
I was extremely devoted to studying Master Song’s craft, surrounded by swaths of cloth and bits of thread, whiling away a boyhood like a plant dyed an unnatural hue, brightly colored, but sick inside, silently suffering.
I would go home once a week, and my parents would poke fun at me. I hadn’t realized it, but my gestures had started to resemble Master Song’s. Brows furrowed, my mother and father would pick at my faults: do you have to run your hand through your hair like that? Why is it you don’t make a sound when you walk? Why do you always dust the chair off before you sit? The chairs in this house are clean already . . . in short, every ordinary act of mine annoyed them, like grit in their eyes, hurting worse the harder they rubbed.
Thankfully, there was good news, too. The holidays came, and they went to Master Song with little presents, and his praise for me put them back in good spirits. Master Song was miserly with praise, but with my parents, for my sake, he loosened up a little. He said, your son Xiaotong is a rare find. I could take on ten apprentices, or a hundred, and not come up with another like him. To tell you the truth, his hands are made for this work. One day, he’ll be a much greater tailor than me . . . I guess people weren’t gossiping about Yingzi yet at the time, but anyway, my mother and father looked at one another and exchanged tight-lipped smiles. In their smiles, I saw a humble family’s thankfulness for having made the right move by dumb luck.
When summer came, Master Song said to me, Now you can learn to take measurements. By then, people were wearing single layers, mostly summer clothes, making my job easier, and the materials were cheap, so it depended on the job, but mostly we made good money.
Master Song had me start with the older women. These old women were either so fat they’d lost their shape or so skinny they’d never had one. I made them mostly broad-collared shirts and capris with baggy legs, clothes that fluttered when the wind blew, easing the heat.
I didn’t mind measuring the old women. The odor of old age would waft from their shriveled lips, their throats would quiver, the flaps of skin beneath their chins would jiggle, and their voice boxes would bob, but they could never get any words out. Eyes fixed on me, they would suddenly start to laugh, reach a hand out and rub my head: this Xiaotong, he’s so dainty and delicate, just like a little girl!
It wasn’t the first time in my life someone had said that, and it didn’t strike me as strange . . . maybe I was paler than before, maybe I was a little thin . . . but I was fine with the way I looked. A tailor wasn’t supposed to be big, swarthy, and muscle-bound. Later, if I wanted to, I could put on some weight. Like Master Song, I could wear a long gown. It would look good on me.
“Now, stand. Lift your arms. Straighten up. That’s it. Relax. Breathe in, breathe out. Legs together. Legs apart.”
I even learned to talk like Master Song, speaking softly to them as my hands moved. But as they listened, the old women always started laughing, so hard sometimes they sank to their haunches, as if I’d cracked some side-splitting joke.
Things went on for a while that way, and Master Song said I could start measuring younger women. Coincidentally, among the first group of women whose measurements I took was Yingzi. She had brought along a dotted purple cloth.
The dots were dazzling, and the fabric was extremely slippery, so that if your attention wandered while holding it, it would spill to the ground like water. It was certainly a special cloth. The women gathered around to gawk.
The cloth had no hold over me. I stood to the side, extremely tense. It was Yingzi who made me tense. I must have suddenly recalled the rumors. Watching as she too gestured at the cloth, I realized she was just as unaware of the rumors about the two of them as Master Song. I was ashamed, like a co-conspirator in a crime. At the same time, I was deeply disgusted with these women for starting the rumors, then turning around and acting innocent. What a scene—twenty years ago, I stood outside the circle of the women, as if standing beneath a stage, outside the spotlight, my inner being ceaselessly seething, suffering pain I can barely describe now.
What Master Song said had slipped my mind: when you measure a woman, put your heart and soul into it, as if she were your mother, your sister or your future wife . . . measure them wholeheartedly, sincerely, with love . . . but how could I love them now?
Master Song talked the women into letting me measure them. Truth be told, they weren’t hard to convince. Seeing my pained expression, they spoke up for me: That’s right, let Xiaotong have a try, can’t have him playing apprentice forever.
The young women always seemed to tower over me, though I was slightly taller, and I would tiptoe around, trying not to touch them. When Master Song did the measuring, they would say nothing, as if silently savoring the experience. But they weren’t that way with me. They always had something to say, and sometimes they would even turn their heads. Though their bodies went along, their hearts were hardened against me.
Needless to say, this affected my mood. I worked quickly, leaving out the instructions to “suck the air in” and “let the air out” when I measured their waists. After all, they had buttons and belts. It wasn’t as if they’d wind up with bare bottoms if their pants didn’t squeeze the life out of them.
Finally, I came to the last of the women, Yingzi. Suddenly, my mouth was full of drool, and I felt a sensation like the urgent need to pee. I could never have imagined, when I took hold of the measuring tape and approached Yingzi, preparing to measure her waist and chest . . . palms sweating, making an incredible, silent effort . . . that this would happen:
Without moving an inch, Yingzi said softly, but firmly, I don’t want Xiaotong touching me. I don’t want Xiaotong touching me.
A moment of awkward silence went by, and the other women began turning this way and that, like foraging ducks, looking to Master Song, then Yingzi, then me. They were obviously overjoyed. If they had had wings, they would have flapped them, summoning the flock.
I saw that Master Song was frozen. He made a fist, brought it to his mouth, and exhaled. It was a wintry gesture, and I knew he was at a loss.
Erm. A lightbulb went on above my head, and I stepped in, stammering, so it’s like this, all right, I’ll take all your measurements, and after that, Master Song will take them again, and that way, your clothes will fit all of you perfectly, like always . . .
Pleased with my ingenuity, I watched as the women deflated. They were happy about their clothes, but sad to see the stalemate broken.
That’s right. Master Song quit breathing into his hands and explained to Yingzi, And then, I’ll measure you again, after all, we have to be extra careful with that fancy cloth.
But Yingzi wouldn’t give an inch: Then measure me now. I don’t want Xiaotong touching me.
In the end, another woman snapped irritably, Oh, I see, Yingzi’s body is so much nicer than ours, it’s made out of gold, and only Master Song can touch it, isn’t that right?
Yingzi seemed to sense some hostility forming, or maybe, she felt some secret of hers had been exposed. She cast an indignant glare at the women around her, suddenly snatched up the cloth, turned, and left us all behind. She was clearly angry.
I was more embarrassed than anyone . . . here I was, an apprentice, trying to take a loyal customer’s measurements, ending up creating a scene. At the same time, I felt offended, and defeated, pounded to a pulp. Yingzi had put me back in my place, the place of any other man, except Master Song.
Yingzi was obviously unwilling to cooperate, and the other women were like hungry honeybees spying a crushed flower, buzzing and swarming, in a mad rush to tell Master Song the rumors, juicy ones like a bunch of plump grapes . . . all was not well with Yingzi’s husband, physically that is, word was when he came home from sea, once every few months, he didn’t sleep with Yingzi. Yingzi might have been married, but odds were no one had made her a woman. Many men had their sights set on her, trying everything they could to come close, but she coolly rebuffed them all. By the looks of things, she only had eyes for Master Song. And on the women went, tripping all over one another, recounting all the rumors haphazardly, but fully, as if to prove their loyalty, as if leaving out the tiniest tidbit would be an affront to Master Song’s dignity. They were elated, and excited, to finally fill in a character who figured unwittingly in the drama, the poor, good-looking, likeable young tailor . . .
Master Song stood by the table, bracing himself, standing still, shaking his head from time to time, as if to shut off the ceaseless stream of talk. His expression was panic-stricken. He looked like he’d been beaten senseless.
Finally, some of the women, tired and satisfied, shut their mouths and shot Master Song a glance, sizing him up like a lone gleaming jewel in a hurricane’s wake, saying to one another, Time to get going. Then they made hurried exits.
Only when the women were gone did Master Song tumble into his chair, weighed down by worry, as if withered vines wrapped his body.
Ohhhhhh. He let out a long, long sigh. I pondered the sigh for a while, but it didn’t seem to be implying anything.
* * *
That evening, very late, Yingzi visited the shop alone.
All these years later, a grown man now, when I remember that evening, I can’t help wondering what was happening in Yingzi’s inner world, what she was really thinking.
Yingzi, the village’s rose. When a girl blossoms into a beautiful woman, people tend to forget her thoughts and her inner being, all the more so in a backward village like Dongba, where people saw only Yingzi’s looks, a real tragedy. Living in solitude, her husband always away at sea, was this woman’s heart swept by tempestuous waves like a stormy ocean? Her solitude and yearning, her love and her longing, what could she do with them, where could she put them?
It seems to me she chose Master Song as her outlet. Master Song was an excellent choice, he was clean, considerate, and tight-lipped, and as a lover, surely he was superior to the crass country men—anyway, since the latter constantly boasted of their physical prowess, if any one of them had gotten their hands on Yingzi, the entire village would have heard about it.
Maybe it was dubious affection born out of boundless solitude, and insatiable physical and spiritual yearning, that gave Yingzi the courage to break out of her cage, to shatter a married woman’s bonds, and visit Master Song’s shop in the dead of night . . .
I guess it was because I slept on the street side of the bed that I was the first to hear the knocking, like a pitiful little bird pecking patiently.
The Song family shop was not too big, with one bedroom for his hunchbacked mother and another for the two of us, a kitchen in the back, and a spacious shop room in front, facing the main street, where in the evening wooden planks were put up, shutting the store. It was this wooden door on which Yingzi was softly knocking.
Master Song and I slept in the same big bed, cozied up under different covers. Since it was my job to put the lights out, sweep up, fetch things, and wait on the family, I slept on the outside, and he slept on the inside. While sleeping, Master Song was just like he was during the day: extremely quiet, making not a sound once he lay down, never rolling around, chit-chatting, snoring or talking in his sleep. I was at the age where I was sleeping a lot, and I was not a light sleeper. But to my surprise, I heard Yingzi from the very first knock.
Master Song must have been awake too. I looked to his side of the bed, but he wasn’t moving. All I could see was a very vague shadow in the dark.
I gave a little cough, but still he didn’t move. Was he asleep, or was he awake? I wasn’t sure.
The knocking went on, and I rolled out of bed. When I pushed aside the planks, Yingzi towered in the doorway. The instant I cleared the way, she sidled in, and just then Master Song’s mother lit the lamp, and Yingzi emerged from the darkness into the light. I noticed she was carrying the fancy dotted cloth beneath her arm. Her expression was extremely awkward, but she steeled herself and greeted Master Song’s mother: I came to have some clothes made.
Master Song stepped out from the inner room, already wearing his long gown, face wiped clean of any expression, not even looking tired. He casually waved away his mother and me: go back to sleep, nothing to see here.
His mother returned obediently to her room, but before she went, she winked, though I didn’t learn what the wink meant until later.
I crawled back beneath the covers. Needless to say, I couldn’t sleep, and I found my eyes fixed on the feeble light shining beneath the door.
There was no sound outside, no sign at all that there was anyone there, not even the sound of panting. I stared off into nothing, my eyes probing the darkened depths . . . I don’t know what they were doing, but now that I’m older I can imagine, and it might have been something like this.
After a while, I heard the cloth being unfolded, and Master Song’s palms gliding down its length, and then he took out his little notebook, unfurling the cloth tape measure in a practiced motion. Deep, deep in the night, to my surprise, Master Song was getting ready to take Yingzi’s measurements.
I thought I heard Yingzi say something in a sorrowful tone, but her voice was muffled, and soon went silent. Maybe she got her point across with gestures and looks, but anyway, I couldn’t hear clearly. Master Song said nothing, but after a while, he seemed to stop moving his hands, no longer preparing to make clothes. I’m sure he shook his head, or maybe he nodded.
Suddenly, I heard Yingzi start to sob, trying with all her might to keep her voice down, the sound full of frustration and despair. Wrapped snugly in the blankets, even I felt her sorrow, and I couldn’t help getting angry on her behalf, hot blood coursing through my body. I wished I were a grown man so I could rush out, wrap my arms around her, and comfort her—at that moment, I seemed to suddenly understand so much, what a woman was, what people did in the dark. Before then I’d been muddle-headed, hopelessly naive, but in an instant I had awakened . . . Yingzi’s true beauty lay not in her appearance, but in her solitude, in the way she didn’t quite fit in. I liked hearing her sobbing so late at night.
I don’t know if Master Song let her rest her head on his chest, or kissed her ice-cold tears, or rubbed her back as she lay there, helpless and beautiful . . . in any case, it was still totally silent outside. Oh, Master Song, who would have guessed your heart was hard as steel? Yingzi cried for a while, trying to hold back her sobs.
I’m leaving, she said softly, distinctly, without a hint of emotion. At this I felt a jolt of panic, as if I’d watched a flower suddenly wither.
Master Song returned to the bedroom, took his clothes back off, and climbed into bed.
A while later, he asked, Xiaotong, are you asleep?
No. I was a little upset with him. There had been no need to be so cruel to Yingzi.
Master Song climbed gingerly beneath the blankets with me, his body burning hot, as if he had a fever. He wrapped his arms around me from behind, as if he were embracing a block of ice.
Xiaotong, I’m not feeling well, let me . . . lie with you a while. There was desperation in Master Song’s voice. I had never seen him so soft or so weak. His hot breath brushed my neck. For a moment my body went stiff.
Xiaotong, I used to . . . have I told you this before? Every time I take a woman’s measurements, I get all . . . agitated. I spread their arms and legs, I have them make all sorts of little movements. When I measure them I touch them almost everywhere, I measure the chest when I make a shirt, and the crotch when I make a pair of pants, so I mean it, there’s no part of their bodies I haven’t touched . . . each time, I get all excited, all stirred up inside . . . Xiaotong, you’re not a kid anymore, can you understand? And then, when I’m finished measuring, I’m tired, and satisfied, as if I’ve climbed to a mountaintop . . . I go in back and wash my hands, calm myself, and move on to the next woman . . . but when it comes to, well, being with a woman . . . do you understand? When it comes to being intimate with them, I can’t, it feels dirty, and disgusting . . . I can’t do it . . . not even with Yingzi . . . she set her sights on the wrong man, why did she have to choose me?
Master Song seemed to burn still hotter, and I felt his body tremble slightly as he drew still nearer. I was tense, stiff, frozen in place.
Can I get you a wet washcloth? I asked, searching for some reason to climb out from beneath the blankets.
No thanks . . . just let me hold you. Don’t move. Master Song was like a drowning man clinging to a piece of driftwood, refusing to let go. When I at last stopped moving, he began softly, tentatively caressing the small of my back and my rear. The palms of his hands were gentle and dry, seeming to hypnotize me . . . amid all the tension, feeling trapped, I somehow began to doze off and fell asleep in his arms.
That evening was like a dream. In the dream, I heard Yingzi sobbing ceaselessly, the most sexually intense sound I’d ever heard. I felt my penis swell with blood, and then . . . someone seemed to be touching it, squeezing it, releasing its pent-up agitation . . . I felt like I had finished a long run, exerting all my energy, feeling sweet as honey, reeking of something raw.
It was my third year with Master Song. I was fifteen.
Master Song, I think, was around thirty-four.
Not long after, word came that Yingzi was gone. She had moved to another village to live with a distant cousin.
When I heard the news, I couldn’t be consoled. It was the worst tragedy of my life. Suddenly Dongba felt big and empty, and nothing in it interested me anymore. I was drained of energy, bereft of hope, but I couldn’t tell anyone why. I couldn’t go see her. I hadn’t had the chance to say good-bye. My pathetic crush on her couldn’t develop normally, and it couldn’t die.
The village was abuzz. The local people loved their hometown. How could she up and leave? For a while, she was the talk of the town. The autumn harvest had ended, and now that there was no more farm work, their tongues picked up the slack, busier now than their bodies had been. On the tips of their tongues, Yingzi danced her last dance in Dongba.
Master Song’s hunchbacked mother heard what happened too, or anyway, she heard something. One day, before dark, she had me put out the door planks, closing up shop.
She did not make dinner, but called Master Song and me to the table anyway. The age-scarred, uneven table had nothing on it at all. Tears and mucus streamed down her face. On the evening’s menu were her incoherent abuse and tearful blame.
Son, why don’t you get this over with? Marry a woman and bring her home, I don’t care who. She can be ugly as a crooked cucumber, shriveled as a date. I’ll even wait on her, she won’t want for anything . . . it’ll be a hundred times better than people talking behind my back.
Son, tell me, that night, nothing happened between you and Yingzi? She came so late, when the stars were already out, and hurried back before dawn. What do you think she was she doing here? Can’t you take a hint? By god I wish you’d made a move. At least then they’d shut their mouths . . . but they’re all saying you’re more yin than yang, I can’t stand people saying you’re not a man . . .
And you treated Yingzi like trash. Want to know why she left? You stabbed her in the heart, you made her lose face, now no one respects her, you dragged her name through the mud . . . Son, don’t you get it, everyone wants you to sleep with her . . . there are a hundred people waiting for you to loosen her up, so they can follow in your footsteps . . . all Dongba is waiting for you to do something, but you’re good for nothing, you’re the butt of all their jokes, you get her ass delivered on a silver platter and don’t know what to do with it, now I can’t even stand to step outside . . .
His hunchbacked mother didn’t hold back for my sake. I was mortified, recalling the dream I’d had that night under the covers with Master Song, wracked by jolts of anxiety and pain. More yin than yang—what a thing to say. It had a sickening ring.
I stole a glance at Master Song. He had bowed his head and averted his eyes, utterly helpless, not responding to any question, not explaining himself. He seemed to think if he just sat there and took the abuse, soon enough it would all be over—maybe it wasn’t the first time mother and son had had a row. I thought, given Master Song’s age, he should have long since taken a wife. He had put off marrying for all these years, and all along his hunchbacked mother had been heaping abuse on him. It was just that no one else knew. I was the first outsider to get a glimpse of the grand show.
In the end, she sputtered and fumed for half an hour, seeming to get it all out of her system. Her hands like withered vines stroked the table for a while, then she went to the kitchen to boil water. Logs snapped in the stove, in place of the answer Master Song didn’t give, an answer the world wouldn’t have understood if he had.
Stomachs empty, we returned from the kitchen to our room. Suddenly, Master Song softly chuckled, saying, Looks like she left her cloth.
I knew Master Song was talking about the fancy dotted cloth. That evening, Yingzi had stormed off, leaving it behind.
Now, twenty years later, who knows what corner of the earth that cloth has ended up in? No doubt it is tattered, moth-eaten, a shadow of what it once was. But, at this very moment, I can still recall it clearly, I can see it, and touch it . . . the afterimage of its dazzling dots imprinted on my eyes, the weighty feel of it lingering in my hands. I watch Master Song fling it out with a flourish, and it opens into the air, like a big bird spreading its wings . . . the translucent but not transparent cloth blocked people’s vision, like the veil between life and death.
Master Song stood, went to the outer hall, hung the oil lamp high, and went to work.
He rummaged for Yingzi’s precious cloth, and started in without any measurements, face half-lifted, staring into emptiness, pausing to think, then acting decisively, without even a measuring tape, without tracing the cuts, like a blind man in the dark, snipping the gleaming black scissors with stunning audacity, like plunging a plow into virgin soil, magically stopping when he should have stopped, and going when he should have gone, as if he knew Yingzi’s figure by heart—as if, like I said before, he was possessed by spirits, and these spirits, with hands ordinary people couldn’t see, had slowly, meticulously caressed Yingzi’s body, caressing the parts that stuck out, and the parts that sunk in, caressing the warm, delicious parts, caressing the moist parts, tracing entrancing, undulating lines, which Master Song’s shining scissors now retraced . . .
I watched from the side with wide-open eyes, as if reading a holy tablet, glimpsing some being descended from heaven. I knew it was the only chance I would ever get to see such a scene, to watch someone working the scissors so masterfully . . . above our heads the oil lamp swayed, casting Master Song’s shadow over the finished and half-finished garments on the rack, all women’s clothes, his shadow seeming to disappear into the broad bosoms and slender waists of the women . . . then, he stooped low, unveiled the new sewing machine that until now a cloth had covered, sat down before it, and treaded the pedal to the needle’s clack. The new machine clattered, sharp and clear, the staccato bursts of sound touching my heart, stirring my soul.
Without knowing why, I wanted to cry. Who was Master Song sewing for? For Yingzi? For himself? For me? Had he seen that, since Yingzi’s departure, I had been depressed, filled with frustrated longing?
The long night deepened like water, until we were wading in it. Master Song seemed to glow brighter by the moment, and when he finished treading the pedal, he snipped long narrow strips from the scraps of cut cloth, and started to twist them together, and I could see, he was coiling the knotted buttons, the most difficult part to make, the part he’d spent the most extraordinary effort on when he made the qipao for Madam Yan . . . I rushed over, to offer help, but Master Song just smiled and turned away, rebuffing the hand I held out . . . I don’t know how much time had passed, maybe only two or three hours, when Master Song suddenly tapped the scissors at me, and lifted his hands, and I lifted my gaze to follow, eyes bleary with sleep, to see the dotted cloth had become a stunning qipao.
It was the most beautiful qipao I had ever seen, a qipao no woman would ever wear.
Now, I could face Yingzi without feeling guilty. Master Song, seeming to have set down a heavy burden, talked aloud to himself. When he lifted his face, I saw ecstasy in his bloodshot eyes.
"Scissors, Shining" © Lu Min. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Michael Day. All rights reserved.
A famous French writer recalls the affair that led to the secret of her success, from a novel by Céline Minard.
I drew up my first will as I was getting deeper and deeper into my third decade and my sales were increasing like an upwelling in a sea of oil, in order to stave off any potential plundering—postmortem or otherwise—and all havoc that could result from implied rights, from all the legal consequences that might arise should I have left everything unspecified.
The day I realized, after an appalling funeral, that those generally called one’s kin were capable of fundamentally and wholesale denying relationships forged over fifty years of patience and attentiveness, I decided to go visit my Notary and have him Note in Law the first and last names and attributes of the beneficiaries I wanted to be recognized. In all frankness, in thorough forthrightness, in sound mind.
I don’t see why I should contribute to the wealth and comfort of a tiny little thing I’ve never seen but which had the random idea to spring forth from the balls or the fertile ova of one of my more or less tangentially consanguineous relatives.
Thus do I bequeath and transfer to all the agnates, lineage, and consanguinities that could be wished for the right to address my eternal soul, by written text or by whispered prayer, in the most regretful terms and in whatever tone they wish to take or affect—without any guarantee of a response.
Now, for all my possessions and most of my assets, I designate as beneficiary to my fortune, to my body and whatever may come of it, including my papers and all archives to be burned, she who stands in the light and who never wavers, Luise XX, heres esto, an artist by profession. May she benefit, as we both already have together, from the happy accident of our meeting. May she delight and appreciate how sexual unions in any time and any place are a frivolity freed from all the leaden weight of life; because we are all beneath that mortal blade. See you later, mon amour.
I know you don’t believe it. I know that whether you’ve opened the window as promised or picked me up outside or found me in the chair, whether or not you’ve carried my body in your arms, this see you later will have no meaning to you. Just like the proposition “the current king of France is bald” has no meaning. Well, as in every one of our fights, all the artfulness I can summon up, and all that results from it, has only been to prove otherwise. See you later, now and for a good long while. I won’t talk about eternity, je t’aime.
I’ve never written anything in English.
Despite everything I’ve been able to say about languages, English and French especially, despite my declared and reiterated attachment to English as my true language, as my language of creation, despite all my accounts of its suppleness, its compactness, its vigorous neutrality, and even though I’ve repeatedly argued for the choice I made—a literary choice, personally literary, a permission, the possibility of inventing my own territory because it wasn’t mine from the outset, but rather taken up, taken over, thoroughly taken in while I was an adult, fully aware, because for me it was the opposite of a heritage, a terra incognita for which I had only the coordinates, a treasure map, a space I created in discovering it, word by word, literally, because ultimately it was never truly mine but I used it and practically reinvented it, and in using it—in usurping it, rather, and extracting some added value—it was possible to see the entire construction or etiology of my identity as a writer, despite these more or less inspired—but always sincere—affirmations and declarations, the fact is (c’est bien là le point) the fact is that I’ve never written anything in English.
Aside from my shopping lists and some notes and instructions for the house staff at Mondeult, aside from a few letters, most of them for business, aside from a kind of collection of insults for personal use, I’ve never written anything in English.
The seventeen or eighteen volumes that currently comprise my life’s work were written in French, my maternal and grand-maternal language.
They were translated into English. Except for First Days, my debut novel, translated by my discreet friend Eliot, I translated them all into English. I rewrote them.
I suppose I should be at least somewhat “sorry.” This revelation is a brutal one.
The organizers of the ten or twenty colloquiums I’ve—in good faith—participated in (I’m thinking, for example, of the one at Stanford: Beckett, Nabokov, and Their Heirs: The Choice of Language in Contemporary Europe) will all have every right to feel hoodwinked.
The reviewers declaring “XXX, the first French writer working in English” or “XXX is the best thing to have happened to the English language in two decades” will end up eating their words, if necessary spinning in their graves.
The Booker Prize jury might reconvene for an unusual meeting full of booze and curses. I told you, didn’t I! Fucking Frenchie! And twice! We gave it to her twice!!
Plenty of people will remember my spoken English being too awkward and heavily accented to ever be real. And that I had trouble understanding Americans and Oxbridge dons, but not Indians from India—an undeniable sign! Some academics will rub their hands thinking about the title for their next syllabus: comparative literature, “On Impostorship around Fictional Works,” “O’Brien and His ‘Mollycules,’ XXX and Her Adopted English: Toward a History of Theoretical Bluster.” Some French intellectuals will talk about double betrayals—this one warp and that one weft—that’s how to weave a scarf, while others will be overjoyed: an author’s come back to us! And with a scandal to boot, hallelujah! Sales will be through the roof. That old French pride—always rather low—will claw its way up a bit in this coop, with a hearty cock-a-doodle-doo, although to be perfectly clear: I’m not coming back.
The English language is my counter-language of creation. My English counter-language is the space I’ve invented, explored, extracted bit by bit from my original language, the foreign space that in and of itself was what allowed me to write in French.
Calmar & Cie would be wise never to try to recover my fictive translators’ fees. I’ve entrusted a complete file to Maître Charruau, who they know. If this whole business goes to trial, I’d be pretty safe in guessing that the verdict would be wholly disadvantageous for their interests (an overloaded debit column, Monsieur Calmar, you wouldn’t like that at all) and would create a precedent. Not to mention the absurdity of it all, which would be a terrible problem for a publishing house of estimable repute.
Since, after all, the English language wasn’t a complete surprise for me.
First Days, which was a bestseller in every English-speaking country upon its publication, which was displayed in aisle end caps, set face-out, piled up in stacks and display towers in the windows of Borders and Barnes & Noble stores (which, honestly, was a huge misunderstanding), which the European counterparts to literary scouts got paid to argue over, which had been completely ignored by Calmar & Cie, B.A.L., and Machette when the manuscript had been titled Premiers Nouveaux Jours, ended up getting an advance of ten thousand. You kidding me? Ten thousand? They should have shelled out a hundred thousand!
Five years later, completely failing to recognize the slightly tidied-up text, “an especially good translation,” Calmar coughed up a hundred and fifty thousand after a drawn-out auction, acting like a gambler that’d just hit jackpot on the slot machines. And sure enough, it had.
At that point, I could have decided that I’d had my revenge and revealed both the deception and, how should I put it, the bank shot I’d made. But that felt a bit obvious. I would have ended up in a good position for my future translations but not exactly the best position possible. My theory was that the French establishment would draw my prose into its bosom and that as a result XXX, France’s first English writer, would become XXX, French writer, bound to a vernacular language of reduced dimensions and distribution within the rest of the world. Another not-so-negligible point: my income was far higher at Platypus’s Tail than it ever would be at Calmar, even if I factored in my translations—the rights being systematically divided, per our contracts, into two equal parts of which only one was de jure paid to me.
[About this, my dear Luise, ask Giacomo to run a little audit, get the money back (suspended author’s rights, adaptation and derivative rights, etc.), don’t drink it away. All the wine you could want is in our cellars. Go gamble it all at Ianarty and LOSE. Go for as long as it takes. It all needs to be gone!]
For that matter, I was the object of the most charming attention of Mr. Thorp, my (late) press officer at Platypus’s Tail, who sent me into the seediest corners of Borough and brought me fruit dripping in honey before radio interviews. He thought I was writing an extraordinarily new, fresh English, cleansed of all dregs of Commonwealth resentment—and rightly so, he insisted, the French had never been colonized, they’d had William the Conqueror! The Battle of Hastings! Case in point!—new, thereby fresh, and perfectly suited to reawaken the Latins from their three or four centuries’ slumber. Mr. Thorp had wide-ranging geo-linguistic theories that unfurled over successive rounds of Guinness—which long had me believing that he had Irish roots.
So, at Bloomsbury, I happily explained, quite straightforwardly, how, when I was about twelve, I’d discovered, with a dejectedness mixed with a regretfulness not unlike learning of a friend’s death, that the French language hadn’t been the original language of all literature. That Dostoyevsky had been a Russian writer didn’t perturb me in the least, I could imagine that easily enough, but that he had written in Russian was a thundering revelation that I immediately shelved beside all those other defamatory lies. A brother to the deeply immoral assertions denying the historical existence of Long John Silver, the pirate cook of the Hispaniola, or casting doubt upon the validity of the faculty of reason Mr. Holmes engaged in all his criminal investigations.
Years later, in accordance with an inverse movement that was proportionally revolutionary, I must have discovered that the portion of the world living in this language (that is, my own) was in fact minuscule. So much frenzied reading of the international papers that I’d devoted myself to during a stretch of my teenage years, sequestered in my room and riveted to the computer that delivered packet upon packet of information and speech from many peoples in indecipherable, sometimes half-forgotten languages—Iroquois, Guaycuruan, Otí, Kiowa—had me convinced of the inanity of French, not to mention its stupidity, not only in its expressive potential (Snow. What snow? Molten snow. Fallen snow. Blue snow melted under the moon. Warm, soft snow that had hardened again) but also in its receptive capacity or its ability to be apprehended in translation. Each year, forty percent of books published in English were translated and brought to the French book market. Which meant that sixty percent of this literature, by far the best-served one, remained inaccessible to monolingual yet curious readers. But what of the language of the peoples of Oregon? Notwithstanding the fact that the Native American peoples of Oregon don’t write (only writing interests me), the language of the peoples of Oregon was yet another gap within mine.
These contradictory yet astonishing revelations, each one opposing the other, should have resulted in my exhaustive attempt to learn all the human languages or into a career as a polyglot translator. If that wasn’t what happened, it’s because right then I also met Paige and because it became abundantly clear in the bed supporting our awestruck, hot-jazzie lovemaking, that Plato’s Sameness wasn’t a complex notion.
In Ruel, in this horrid house her parents had abandoned, we spent a complete, luminescent night that has grown dear to my heart, a night experiencing the extraordinary metamorphic power of desire. Its labile omnipotence, its versatility. The multiplicity of stories and bodies it imparts, their ability to appear and transform, in the blink of an eye, deep within the blaze of action, without breaking it or miring it, on the contrary, feeding it all the better with a welter of metamorphoses drawn from unforeseen, unexpected groundswells and wellsprings.
This night when I understood that it was possible to have sex like a man, like a woman, with this woman like a woman, like a man, like a goat, like a devil, like an incense spirit, overflowing with water even while burning—oh, sweet heart, oh how you have surprised me in the dead of the night—this night sealed, consecrated, my future as a writer absolutely. And the decision about my language: Paige was Australian.
“If she walks in Cos’s light, in a shimmer of tinted fabric, if rings clink along her arms, if she bears the nose of Clodia or Lesbia or Cynthia or Helen, then she deserves a poem.” This is what First Days did in its own way, a preliminary, interpretive movement, not the pornographic tract it was mistaken for. But what does it matter? At the very least it gave Eliot the opportunity to set Shakespeare’s old daring dancing again in contemporary language and to call a cat (a pussy) by its positions and its variations: a ruff, a scut, a crack, a lock, a salmon’s tail. This last resurrection, incidentally, was what convinced Yorg Brayton, the editorial director at Platypus’s Tail, to publish this debut novel, calling it “promising.”
With Eliot, this exercise of transposition was a total contrast, a practically criminal complicity made up of doubts and back-room accusations, arguments, wild laughter and oaths of loyalty to one another (he took ten percent for the translation and the work of selling it, five percent for his discretion) and us pushing each other to alter particular future plans radically.
At the end of the whole thing he had to put an end to all literary activity and plunged into what had been dear to his body ever since his divorce: the drag show inspired by the Moulin Rouge. As for me, I had to learn enough English to take care of things myself, even though this meant cutting myself off from everyone else, cursing myself, cheating on myself, and returning to unbearable nights and better days.
It was a long apprenticeship for each of us.
Eliot took singing and dancing lessons from the Paris ballet mistress Janet Woodson and threw unstoppable parties at my place that brought the Vᵉ arrondissement’s neighborhood watch association knocking several times.
In the Southwark loft his wife had cleared out completely, I had a convertible couch, 150-watt Sennheiser speakers, and several crates of bourbon delivered, and I started practicing greeting people and making conversation.
We each made serious progress in parallel, and while my transformation was less visible than hers, hers was every bit as profound: like a salmon, with powerful beats of this salmon’s tail I surged against the current of the Thames and the Seine, tracing in my sinewy, piscine form, the discontinuous line—here in the air, there in the water—of what would become my medium for writing: the lie.
To be absolutely clear, aside from Eliot and Luise, nobody ever knew what I was trafficking between my two languages. Not even my Swiss agent Giacomo Bisiach who I got in touch with after my second book, presenting myself as an ambitious, greedy writer terrible at reading contracts but deliberately unprudish, meaning that no, I didn’t think it suitable or honorable to be a dishwasher at some Brooklyn hole in the wall by day and a writer at night penning the greatest works of the twenty-first century on a wobbly table. Even if I were drinking Balzacian quantities of spiked coffee, lighting box after box of reeking cigarillos, ultimately descending into a Homeric alcoholism befitting my posterity. No thank you. And, more to the point, if he knew an attorney well-versed in international law, he would be doing me a service since I had some money to invest.
Giacomo was an excellent advocate from the very first day. Open, agreeable, direct: he glanced very quickly over the numbers I had brought, the press clippings, and set his immense hand on my manuscript, declaring that he would call me in three days. In the meantime, if I had a few minutes free, he would be delighted to introduce me to one of his acquaintances at Peterman’s.
Two hours later, my first bank account was open.
“Tax evasion” has never held any negative connotations for me. In this phrase, the word tax, which a priori seems rigid and carries uneasy implications, finds itself so wonderfully light that it takes on intriguing, archaic tonalities, like a red moon veiled by the warmth of a blazing day within a massive, inky-black sky, studded with billions of pinpricks. “Tax evasion,” practically an oxymoron, radiates a magical space, with a paradoxical freedom, and constitutes the Platonic ideal of a genuinely ancient rhetorical figure’s renovation for thoroughly undeniable effect. All the more so for a writer.
I don’t doubt that the French Republic, and its requisite taxation, maintains a structure that guarantees more or less clannish abuses and excesses and proofs of brute force. But when the Republic forgets or denies or tramples its own posterity underfoot, then the best course of action is to take particular safety measures oneself and with utmost respect.
Yorg Brayton couldn’t pay me a substantial advance—we were dealing with theoretical speculations—but he sent me Mr. Thorp, armed with his umbrella and his industrious, incessant activity. He found my destiny thoroughly fascinating, repeated that decisions often took you places without your realizing it, and, after a few cross-Channel phone calls, one of his friends was able to put a “very suitably insulated” Ford minivan at my disposal.
And so I spent six months amid the immense Irish stretches, each one of them peaty and black and deserted, before setting my sights on the heights of Lobinstown in an empty, ultramodern shell, like an arthropod on a bit of slimy rock. I stayed there for some time listening to the aggressive seagulls chasing each other down the seaside path and contemplating, usually in the morning, history’s ironies. Should I have washed my hair outside, in front of the parapet, with a bowl of soap in one hand and a frayed dishrag in the other before coming back to France once and for all to suffer so many twists and turns before finally achieving renown? Or did I just need to sit on this bench and pay attention to the welter of unimportant things crossing the planks beneath my ass? Get on my thin-tired racing bike to cross the moor and stop at the first church I saw to play the lonely organ in the night?
It was necessary to spend six months and one day on Irish land in order not only to benefit from simple evasion but to enjoy paradise directly. Of the fiscal sort. So, after the allotted time, I’d reached the gates of paradise. Once they were open for good, I hopped on a plane headed to Italy. As they say, I’d caught a chill.
After three months of prolonged springtime on the island of Ventotene amid the archaic Caetani, it became clear that I preferred evasion to paradise.
A decade later, I had to go back there with you, my sweet lullaby, and what an enchantment that was! Better yet: a silk-lined charm! This life bathed in light, this house with all its doors and windows open to your face on the walkway of the ship that lumbered between the island and the mainland. Open to the wind, your hands, your mouth, your blouse all open, your lips like cherries. Our unregimented days metered only by the sun, the siestas heavier than the heat, the huge hammock amid the olive trees and these deep-white paintings you made as each day began in the orchard, the canvas set on the table, outside, leaning against the irritating ocher of the decaying wall, these sumptuous Overexposed Dante paintings, the crickets’ all-encompassing song, my protracted hours under covers writing (B)racket all in footnotes, dry white wine, whiskey, apples—all that is still within me. And I shouldn’t say “still” because that’s a part of the kingdom our life had, a living part that cannot die. That remains—stare—in a gap of time. Like all successful evasions.
Thus the part I’m writing at this moment, this testament, which will carry me headlong beyond my own death toward some temporality where the opposing forces of composition and biographical decay cancel each other out . . .
From So Long, Luise. @ 2011 by Céline Minard. Published 2011 by Denoël. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation @ 2019 by Jeffrey Zuckerman. All rights reserved.
In the grip of obsession, a man turns an open relationship into a triangle in an excerpt from a novel by Kári Tulinius.
Listen to Kári Tulinius read "Abel's Autobiography" in the original Icelandic.
Life never chooses the right moment to unveil love to you for the first time, when you’ve not yet experienced it—not, for instance, at a moment when the days are lumbering by at a crawl, like station wagons in bumper-to-bumper traffic—but rather when you’re speeding along the freeway with a scalding hot cup of coffee in one hand on your way to meet your friend near the old abandoned military base so you can sneak through a hole in the fence and leap naked from the barracks roof into a swimming hole and then look over at the other lane where there’s a person who’s in just as much of a hurry as you and who looks over at the very same second and your eyes meet and something sparks in your mind, and your friends, your plans, your future are all forgotten, and then suddenly, it’s clear there’s only one right choice: to smash your cars together and make love in the wreckage.
The person in the car next to mine in this metaphor was Jerome, who, as he put it, had needed to correct the misunderstanding that he was a woman and had had a mastectomy, had been taking testosterone for two years, and carried himself, looked, and smelled exactly like what he was—and I didn’t just want to be with him, I wanted to be him, minus the receding hairline—I even considered quitting theology and transferring to the music composition department where he was completing his PhD because his whole inner self came together in one whole, wasn’t just draped around him like rags.
We met because he was composing not music exactly, but rather a soundscape for a play I had a part in, which bore the long and cumbersome title of Scies Sub Ista Tenui Membrana Dignitatis Quantum Mali Iaceat—You Will Know How Much Evil Lies Under That Thin Coating of Titles—which quite rightly indicated that the work was a bit pretentious, though the title had actually come about by chance; it was supposed to have been the epigraph, but the playwright, Rhea Wilkins, wasn’t able to come up with a title and ultimately, the Seneca quote ended up being the only thing written on the cover page and anyway, it corresponded perfectly with the content: an amalgamation of short retellings of Greco-Roman myths that dealt with gender roles—I was to play our friend Attis from a poem by Catullus—since Rhea wanted to use ancient mythology to critique the gender myths of the present.
The other role I was supposed to play, one of Penelope’s pushy suitors, was cut when the play was shortened by half—all the Homer stuff got cut out—so I had more time to hang out and chat; I’d actually planned to sit in the corner and study, but I’d always enjoyed lolling around with a cup of tea, discussing everything under the sun and moon while my castmates worked on something in the script that I was in no way responsible for, so it didn’t take long before I was spending a lot less time with my nose in a book and fingers on a keyboard, while conversely, the hours I spent with the musicians—among them, Jerome—started to pile up and they amused themselves with stories and party games, some of them music-related—for instance, they’d improvise a quick tune to represent the way someone walked and then you’d have to guess who the song was for—but others more traditional conversation games, like one where you had to describe a fictional character without making any physical gestures and without using any word connected to the fictional work the character was in, and I was very good at that game while Jerome was the master of the promenade game because he generally had a really good feeling for how bodies moved, both as discrete entities and also how they filled and used space.
We were drawn together on the dance floor, our group went to a dance club all together, which I’m usually not big on because I’d rather dance alone or with just a few friends—this was a sign that I’d been sucked into Jerome’s gravitational pull, which I was as yet unaware of—but this time, I didn’t think twice about it, rather followed everyone into the club and out onto the floor and was there longer than everyone else, except for him, until finally, we got separated from everyone else among the dancing strangers, bodies that turned into waves that encircled us in a writhing swell of flesh and fervor, his dance steps becoming my own—more delicate, smoother and slower—until he stood still, looking down and a tiny bit to the left, his hands quivering in time with the music; I was spooned out from within and filled with thunderclouds—I’d moved closer as our dancing slowed and laid a hand on his right hip and then he put his arms around me, pulled me to him, lifted his face to mine and kissed me and the electricity that had been building up under my skin, in my chest and in my throat, streamed out of me and into him.
I probably would have been able to maintain my sanity when it came to him—though there’s no doubt that I would have become smitten all too quickly—had he not told me first thing the next morning that he was in an open relationship but that he wanted to keep sleeping with me, seeing me, and asked if I wanted the same thing; that’s when the weeds of jealousy took root and spread throughout my thoughts, choked my other feelings and desires so that I became obsessed with Jerome, even started to copy the way he dressed and moved—I wanted to have him all to myself, my life began revolving around taking possession of him and his time, everything else became a mere detail, my writing assignments were submitted late and poorly done, class periods passed me by like a herd of cows in the fog—if I even showed up, that is—my relationships with friends got choked by the weeds because my friends were transformed into psychologists who had to listen to me blather on—I have to give it to you: you’re always willing to listen to me ramble—my theatrical pursuits vanished in the uncultivated thicket like everything else that had made me me, and in the end, I was only interested in two things: Jerome, and his lover, Lionel.
Jealousy sowed its seeds wider still in my mind whenever Jerome called me and said that he couldn’t meet up because Lionel needed him; the first time he did it, it was OK—things come up—but the next time he chose Lionel over me, I understood that this was the way my life was going to be, that I would always be second best because Jerome felt that he bore some responsibility for Lionel—any time Jerome’s cell would whistle with a message from Lionel, Jerome’d come running—although in fairness, Jerome could also always rely on Lionel, who felt that ze’d been rescued from the abyss by our mutual lover.
Jerome had met Lionel at the Boulder Public Library as ze would regularly go there to meet hir daughter, who ze’d lost custody of when ze’d transitioned; Jerome found the library an agreeable place to work on his compositions, far away from the distractions of the university campus, and on one occasion he noticed the tense interaction between Lionel and hir former husband, started to keep an eye out for hir and get to know the routine: ze’d wait for hir daughter, chat with her, say good-bye to her—or, when the ex didn’t show, didn’t—how Lionel would crumple when ze’d given up hope of getting to see hir daughter that day, and on one such occasion, Jerome approached Lionel, said he’d often seen hir with hir daughter, and it didn’t take long for their conversation to become quite intimate.
Lionel sent Jerome a friend request on Facebook, they started talking, and before long were regularly meeting at a coffee shop in town, although Lionel lived in a cabin in the woods, far up in the Rockies—hir isolation was both geographical and social—ze’d moved from New York to be close to hir daughter when hir former husband got a computer science position in Boulder, had let hirself be guided by a long-standing desire, moved to a remote house to write, and then four years had passed and ze hadn’t made any close friends, rather lived in hir cabin and took walks through mountain forests in search of the inspiration that ze did actually find, ze’d finished the manuscript of hir novel and was forever rewriting it—I’d managed to covertly send myself a copy from Jerome’s computer when I was visiting him at his office—the novel was about Abelard and Heloise, or more accurately, just Heloise, but in Lionel’s story, Abelard was her creation, a nom de plume she adopted in order to get her writing published, and then her pseudonym took on its own life and stories about its dialectical prowess traveled to every corner of France, then Heloise began dressing up as Abelard and started teaching at a Paris school, but claimed to be taking private lessons with that famous intellectual so as not to arouse suspicion when going in and out of the place where she kept her disguise, but in time, she started to spend more time in her role as Abelard, gradually felt better that way than she did as a noblewoman, until an uncle’s suspicion that something untoward was going on between her and her teacher lead to an innocent bystander being castrated and her being forced to enter a nunnery.
Lionel felt that society, both American society at large and the literary world, was against hir, ze had a master’s degree in creative writing from Brooklyn College but never got to teach anywhere or publish anything, and ze had trouble trusting anyone other than Jerome, who won hir trust by always being frank and forthcoming, describing all his love affairs in great detail—sometimes, Lionel also came down just to hear Jerome practicing his clarinet—but other than hir lover and daughter, Lionel avoided humankind as best ze could, since as far as ze was concerned, society had driven hir into the forest.
I felt like I had to meet hir, to find out who it was that held Jerome captive—my emotions had gotten the better of me—to find a way to free him from his prison, to get him all to myself—a mentality that I’m ashamed of now, a problematic but important part of my life, but I wouldn’t be me without my obsession, or to put it better, I wouldn’t be me without this experience because when Jerome became my role model, I could allow my masculinity to grow like an apple tree next to a crystal-clear spring and become myself; before, I’d taken cues from my father, but it’s from Jerome that I learned how to move and how to be still, how to knot my tie and iron my shirts, how to speak and listen.
In the beginning, Jerome and I didn’t meet very often outside of the theater, but as the fall semester progressed, I started visiting him most days and in the end, I was staying with him every night, except when Lionel was in town or needed him to stay in the forest, but jealousy weighed so heavily upon me that I could only begrudge Lionel and be bitter toward Jerome for leaving me behind so that more and more often, I’d pass by his house when they were together in the hope of seeing them without ever having decided what exactly it was that I planned to do if they actually appeared.
Nothing ever came of these walk-bys, but one day, I saw an email from Lionel to Jerome—I’d snuck a look at it while he was making tea—in which ze suggested that they meet up at a coffee shop called Erhard’s that was pretty far away from downtown and the university; at first, it wasn’t my intention to spy, but my curiosity got the better of me and after Jerome left me by the university building where I was supposed to be going to class, I went to the coffee shop instead—took the next bus after him—and as soon as I arrived, I knew I’d made a mistake: it was a small place, just a bakery, really, with a few tables for customers, in a shopping center where each shop was facing out toward the parking lot such that I couldn’t hide anywhere and so had to stop pretty far away; as far as I could tell, the two of them were sitting at a table with a little girl—probably Lionel’s daughter—and then I walked back in the direction of the university.
It makes my skin crawl now when I think about how asinine my behavior was, but at any rate, I decided to take things even further because when I realized, while snooping through Jerome’s emails on another occasion, that they intended to go up to Lionel’s place in the mountains, I resolved to follow them; I wanted to see them together so I could understand why Jerome preferred Lionel to me—I just had to make arrangements for a car and then also to dress in such a way that Jerome wouldn’t recognize me from a distance.
After asking a few friends if I could borrow their car—I should mention that I invented the unnecessarily complicated excuse that some relatives of mine had a twelve-hour stopover at the Denver airport and I wanted to take them on a quick trip into the Rockies—Cynthia told me I could use her Corolla if I returned it washed and with a full tank of gas; then I went and bought an ugly old sweater and a big wool hat—there was no reason to do more than that, but just to be on the safe side, I grabbed a pair of fake glasses from the props closet, as well as a thermos of tea and a package of cookies from home.
I didn’t have to wait long because Lionel arrived in hir pickup truck about five minutes after I’d parked a short ways down the street and Jerome came out right away—he usually made me wait—and they drove off and I after them, took the most direct route out of town and up into the Rockies, the sides of which were already in shadow, and I suddenly realized that I had no idea where Lionel lived, nor whether the two of them were going straight to hir house; I’d been so focused on how I’d go about following them that I hadn’t thought through the trip itself, except that I should keep at least one car between us, a tip I’d picked up from crime novels.
Lionel followed the winding road along the bottom of the valley which lay between hills that quickly turned into steep, densely wooded mountains on both sides of the car and every time they disappeared around a curve, I got scared that I’d lose them, although that didn’t happen, and finally, we came to the dam and water reservoir by Nederland, but they kept driving, through the town and up into the mountains with me following in the Corolla, further and further up into the Rockies—it had started to snow—and as the road got increasingly narrow and winding, I lost sight of them behind the dense trees more often, although I invariably caught sight of them again until, all of a sudden, they disappeared.
At first, I kept driving for a while in the hopes I’d find them, but I was quickly persuaded that they’d turned off the road somewhere, so I turned the car around and drove slowly back the way I’d come, trying to scan for back roads leading into the forest and it wasn’t long before I came across one, but when I slowed down to check if I could see some trace of a car, I caught sight of another back road further down and so on and so forth because within the very short distance I’d driven back, there were any number of roads leading into the forest and tire tracks in the new-fallen snow on many of them.
I didn’t want to give up and decided to drive down the back road that had tire tracks that I thought looked the most like they were from a truck—I have no idea now how I thought I could know that—at first, it was going really well, but then the Corolla’s tires started to lose their grip and spin a bit, but I still kept going—I didn’t want to have wasted all that time and energy following them all the way up there just to have them get away from me in the final feet—but then the road ended at an old hunting shack—no car, Jerome and Lionel nowhere to be seen.
I was shocked, nearly burst into tears, got out of the car to check whether maybe the road kept going, but it didn’t, the tire tracks ended—or, more accurately, began—at the shack, and there wasn’t a thing to see through the snow flurries except for the forest all around me, so I turned around and went back the way I’d come, but before long, I came to a spot where the road forked and then drove a ways down a side road, stopped the car, jumped out, made sure that no one had driven down it, got back in the car, backed out onto the main road, and put it into drive, but when I tried to go forward, the tires started spinning and then jerked the car forward onto the shoulder and I couldn’t get it to go backward or forward and when I took out my phone to call for help, I couldn’t get a signal—stuck, no hope of rescue, in the forest—the flurries had become an all-out blizzard, an endless torrent of white flecks that fell on the fir trees, the Corolla, and me.
I didn’t know what I should do in this predicament because I’d learned to drive in the summer in Issaquah and had never needed to think about how I should free a car that’s stuck in the snow, had never gotten the knack, and in New England, where I would have maybe been able to learn it, I never drove—I hardly ever got in a car, hardly ever left the campus grounds because that’s where I felt most comfortable—but now I wished I’d tried to drive in the snow, just so I’d know if I was in a lot of trouble or just an insignificant jam, but I felt entirely forsaken, like my life was maybe even in danger.
The car idled while I sat and thought about what would be the best thing to do, but my initial hunch—you couldn’t call it an informed guess—was that this road was most likely used very little, so I decided the best thing to do would be to walk back out to the main road, particularly because I was afraid that if I waited until morning, the tire tracks would get snowed over and the snow drifts would be more arduous to traverse, and anyway, there was still something left of the day, so I put my coat on over my sweater—which I thanked providence I’d bought—took off the fake glasses, put on the cap and gloves, turned off the Corolla, got out, grabbed the thermos and cookies, started off into the blizzard, and was all at once overcome with worry about Cynthia’s car, although I managed to shake that off because I knew she would be the first to tell me not to worry about a lifeless object, that if I’d died because I didn’t want to abandon her car she’d have chased me into the next world like a hunter stalking its prey.
The walk went well—the tire tracks showed me the way and I was filled with a growing sense of security, would have even whistled if the snowflakes hadn’t chilled my enthusiasm, but my creaking steps became livelier, and before long, the walk was progressing well and I was certain that I’d reach the road soon, but little by little the tire tracks became more indistinct, slowly but surely it got darker, my self-assurance waned and I started feeling less sure of myself, thought that it would have been good to have you at my side—an Icelander who knew what you were supposed to do in such circumstances.
Darkness fell suddenly, much sooner than I would have hoped—I hadn’t thought about the fact that in the mountains, the sun disappears behind the peaks long before it sets—and soon I couldn’t see anything except what was illuminated when I checked my phone for service—there wasn’t any—I’d grown cold and I suddenly realized that I had no idea how long I’d driven along the trail or how far from the road I’d gone; all my focus had been directed at what lay ahead and any clues that indicated that Jerome and Lionel had gone this way, so I hadn’t checked the clock or the mile markers, but now I understood what kind of danger I was in, and that I had been led there by my own obsession—had allowed myself to be a jealous idiot—and now I might die because of my own stupidity, and so I sat down with my back up against a tree, drew my legs up under my old sweater, scrunched my head down into the collar and shifted a little so that I could have a sip of tea, a nibble of a cookie, while I thought about the fact that I might now die, that in my foolhardiness I’d endangered myself, that I would maybe freeze to death under a tree next to a backwoods trail high up in the Rocky Mountains just because I’d become obsessed with a person I’d never met: my lover’s lover.
I had two choices: I could wrest back control of my life or I could die, either now or later, after I’d made another decision while blinded by my obsession, so I decided to stop loving Jerome, to stop thinking about Lionel—to stop living for other people and start instead living for myself—and so I renounced Jerome, I renounced my love, renounced the power my emotions held over me.
In order to lift my spirits, I imagined that I was Superman, worn out and exhausted after having single-handedly saved the world from invasion, and now recovering from my injuries in a forest not far from the farm where I’d grown up when suddenly, the man who’d raised me as his own came out of the shack and sat down next to me dressed in a flannel shirt, jeans, and green boats—even though I knew very well that he was a ghost, since my enemies had murdered him in cold blood again and again—but still he laid his hand on my shoulder and we reminisced about my childhood, back when everyone thought I was an earthling.
I woke up cold and stiff, my eyes smarting from my contact lenses, wolfed down what was left of the cookies, drank the last drops of tea, and tried to follow the path—which wasn’t actually possible, in that it was now completely invisible—but the illusion of a path kept me walking and before long, I heard the sound of traffic and walked right out onto the road I’d turned off of the day before, waving my arms and ecstatic with happiness; a couple around sixty or so stopped in a Jeep, took me back to Cynthia’s car, hauled it back on the road and as I drove home, I felt like I’d been purified overnight: everything that wasn’t me was gone—nothing was left except for Abel, except for all that I am.
On my way down from the mountains, the thought crossed my mind that people are not one unbroken whole, but rather, the brain is a collection of countless nodes and components in a complex system of cooperation and competition; reason is but one aspect, but in that all my student years went into learning to be a thinker—rational and critical—it’s practically a given that I’d extol logic above all else in my mind; I’ve always had a tendency to look at my body and my self as one, unbroken whole, one person, but I’m not a person—rather a polyphonic democracy of silent impulses because no one agrees with their inner self, because my selves are many and no one thought binds them all together; instead, my mind is a foam that swirls up to the surface of my brain as this system and these components flow together like the Pacific and the Atlantic in the Strait of Magellan.
In their natural state, people simply are what they are, but within a society, they become a tangle of roles, self-images, and life purposes, all in a paradoxical structure that we weave together in a civilization that is reified in cities, temples, writing, and images, and again on the internet where blogs, videos, and Facebook present everyone with their own objectification; everyone acquires an electronic soul that leads an independent life and can survive the death of the body like a ghost that can only be laid to rest by destroying all information, but in any civilization, it’s always a crime to destroy information—only the worst villains set fire to libraries—but I sometimes wished I could erase my own electronic soul and try to find something to fill that void, find eternal life somewhere other than in databases, or, yes, even fling myself out into the void and see what is beyond it.
From Móðurhugur. © Kári Tulinius. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Larissa Kyzer. All rights reserved.
Montenegro’s Stefan Bošković on a writer, his editor/lover, and a double dumping.
I look at the clock again. Forty minutes separate me from dinner. I’m nicely dressed. Elegant, in gray. Perhaps I’ll change my shirt. He’d like to see me in garish colors. I have orange shoelaces, at least. I sit at the computer and listen to the ocean. Photos of the sea in slideshow are supposed to bolster the feeling. It doesn’t help. I’ll jerk off again to calm me down. It doesn’t work terribly well because I can’t find the right video. The kisses sound boring, the panting is fake, huge cocks flash like drawn sabers. After all, I don’t need a fight tonight. I’m above that.
I open a new window and type Google Trends, then my name in the search box. A turquoise rectangle appears on the graph—that’s me. I’ve been searched for twenty-two thousand times. I don’t think I’ve done it more than a thousand myself. I look at the clock again, then at the graph. I’m happy with the statistics. How about a little comparison: I enter Colson Whitehead. He’s highlighted in yellow. He sure whops me in the statistics. About fiftyfold. I try to come up with new words. I type God. Colson and I vanish with the click of a mouse. The Orange God outstrips us on the platform. No mercy on any of us. My thoughts accelerate and double up. Justin Bieber outdoes God. The Venerable takes up only a third of Justin’s box that contains billions of views. How to overtake Him? What could be more advanced than God and Bieber? It’s not easy. I type PORN and everything else disappears. Justin Bieber and God hang on the graph like the finest of threads. Thin needles for deadening a dental nerve. And bluish PORN stands out boldly. Like a cock in your mouth. Like a planet that will never break asunder. I listen to the ocean with a downsized window and stare at PORN. My gaze slides to the clock in the right-hand corner of the screen. Twenty minutes till dinner. I call a taxi, don’t change my shirt, and trip over the doorstep as I leave.
I wait at the door. I try to relax or find a pose to pack my body into so I’ll look cool enough when I speak. I ring, and the bell makes everything fucking fall apart. My knees are like jelly. She opens the door and introduces herself: “Nora.” “I’m . . .” “Arsen. I know,” she forestalls. I wait for her to invite me in, but that doesn’t happen. She stands there with a frozen grin, like a ceramic figure. While I’m thinking about how to slip and shatter into a zillion pieces, he appears behind her and says: “Why don’t you come in, you’re standing there like a cheap ceramic figure.” I’m about to say, “If only Nora would move aside,” but as my voice slowly emerges, she zips out of the way, and I blather some incoherent noises that make them laugh. “I’m glad you find me funny.” “We’re glad you’ve come,” she replies.
The corridor stinks horribly of wet socks. Nora says the octopus will soon be ready, it’s been cooking for four hours. I’m surrounded by books in the winding corridor as I work my way to the living room. Nothing can mitigate the stench of half-cooked octopod. Not even a bullet to the head or the smell of gunpowder afterward. The table is neatly set with plates and silver for the soup, salad, and main course. Nora puts on a nocturne and turns it down with a dose of good taste. I drink the pinot grigio and try not to listen to Filip’s drooly-mouthed bullshit. Nora runs cheerfully to and fro around the table, and then around Filip, periodically kissing his hair. He’s perpetually smiling, I don’t see any boredom in his eyes. He looks more stupid than ever. Nora sits down next to him and tells us the octopus is just about ready. She and Filip make love when the planets collide, she pronounces next. Filip confirms the collision with a short, juicy kiss, but her hands take hold of his head and make that kiss long, longer, the longest. Filip tells me with a discreet glance not to stare.
I lower my gaze, and when I raise it again they’re undocked, just swallowing each other’s saliva. I take the thumb drive out of my jacket and suggest to Filip that he read the story “Transparent Animals” again, which he expressly doesn’t want in the book. In my book. We’ll talk about that after dinner, he says. I’m not sure we have anything to talk about until then. Nora touches his hair. I want to bite one of the forks. The thought makes my teeth hurt dreadfully. I hope and pray for quick-cooking octopus. The cretins are sure not to have tenderized it properly. How simple it would have been to have chicken.
I sweat like a horse and take the conversation back to the story. Filip realizes I have a serious problem and says he’s not going to publish the book unless it’s exactly what he wants. I consider it to be the most important story, I’d sacrifice four of the others just to have it. The expression on his face doesn’t change. His gaze is deep, his eyes as clear as the winter sky. He doesn’t look stupid now. I notice Nora is squeezing his hand. A sign of support, I suppose. Unnecessary, because he’s monumentally obstinate. The silly bitch doesn’t know that. Filip still thinks “Transparent Animals” should be left out entirely. We don’t speak for a time. I believe silence will lessen our differences. If that’s true, it will be me who backs down. Nora goes off to the kitchen. I sum up the facts so he’ll see I’ve tried hard to satisfy his objections regarding “Meteors,” “At Death’s Door,” and “Transcription,” although I hated doing it. I agree to omit a few problematic sentences in “Transparent Animals,” but leaving out the whole story is a horrible thought. “I’ve always considered the world and the people in it horrible,” Filip tells me. Until he got to know Nora and new colors. “You betrayed us,” I say. He smiles and replies that we didn’t go any further than a springtime affair. A knife to the stomach.
I guzzle the wine and ask him if he likes women now. He says he’s never liked men, but sometimes he feels the urge to ram it up a butt. I feel like a tawdry souvenir from a short trip. Nora comes in and informs us it’s snowing. That makes her euphoric, and she grins like a hyena when she mentions the almost-cooked octopus. She sits on Filip’s lap and stuffs her tongue down his trachea. He chokes and enjoys. I look toward the window, and my gaze tries to break through the curtain and spot the snowflakes while I listen to their revolting sloppy sounds. I return to the conversation about the book. Filip wipes the slobber from his manicured beard and takes a sip of wine. He says there’s no book, nor will there be. That’s what he’d decided, but he didn’t have the courage to tell me. I ask for an explanation.
“There are no events, no experiences, none of your character traits, no developments, none of your threads of anyone’s situations, no emphasizing the drama of individual moments, no anecdotes, metaphors, or symbols, no delimiting, narrowing, or tapering toward the end. None of your stupid pornography. So there’s no book. No book! Your book doesn’t exist. I am God on a plush designer chair, who pisses into your mouth from the third floor. You lowly hacks and squid are bottom-feeders, you expect great things of life. Your little tentacles will never reach up to my gleaming jacket.”
I scan the room in my utter dismay. Many of its corners seem obscure, not completely visible. Nora thinks the octopus is ready. I have a sudden nosebleed. My hand shoots out to save the tablecloth from damage. She brings napkins. I solemnly throw them at Filip, who tries to catch one in his teeth. I leave without saying good-bye because I’m breathing through my mouth. Nora is behind my back. Her voice follows me down part of the corridor. Then it disappears.
I stand in the silence. Big snowflakes fly past beneath the streetlamp. I’m cold. I curl my body, bending over my shadow. Black circlets of blood are neatly spaced against the white. I’m hungry. Remnants of the smell cling to my clothes and hair. My nose has stopped bleeding. I’d love to undress and stand in the snow until it buries me completely. Then, in the morning, I’d roam the streets like powder snow and vanish. I’m not sure where to. Perhaps I’d try to rise up into the sky. Or disappear in the computerized sound of the ocean.
"Search: Porn" © Stefan Bošković. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Will Firth. All rights reserved.
In this excerpt from a novel by Kim Hye-jin, a struggling daughter moves back home and brings her lover, forcing her widowed mother to face facts.
The waitress brings out two steaming bowls of udon noodles. My daughter’s face seems a little tired, a little gaunt, and a little aged as she rummages through the utensils box for spoons and chopsticks.
Didn’t you get my text message, Mom? she asks me.
I did. I kept telling myself I should call you but then I forgot.
That’s what I say to her, but I’m lying. I had thought about her so hard all weekend that I’m exhausted. But here I am, sitting with my daughter, with nothing to show for it, not a single plan or solution.
Did you go somewhere this weekend?
I make up some nonexistent lunch with a person she might remember me mentioning before. She looks as if she’s about to ask another question but only says, Oh.
Then, perhaps trying to be polite, she adds: I mean, maybe you should go outside now and then? Lots of festivals and things going on.
I don’t know. I’m just so tired.
I pick out a long, thick noodle and slurp it down. I used to like eating dishes like this when I was young. Of my three meals a day, one was always some noodle dish. I still like noodles, but now it’s the digestion part that bothers me. Things sure aren’t what they used to be in that department. I end up having to rub my tummy, pacing in my bedroom, and getting in and out of bed to keep it down. That’s what it’s about, giving up the things you used to enjoy one by one; that’s aging.
A group of college students enter the restaurant. A bunch of office workers finished with their meal are crowding the cashier. Lots of laughing and loud talking. There are young people everywhere now. Here I sit, my face covered in wrinkles and liver spots, my hair thinning, my back bent. I don’t belong here. I keep thinking that someone is going to be hostile to me at any moment. My eyes keep darting left and right. My daughter is quickly emptying her udon bowl. I keep sinking deeper into worry. Should I say what I really want to say? Would it be all right if I did? Was it wrong to say it? Despite these questions, there is only one thing I’m really afraid of.
The clapback from my refusal.
I finally open my mouth: As you know . . .
As you know. Can there be a clearer sign of refusal? My daughter knows this. Her eyes momentarily tremble with disappointment.
I know. I know you can’t afford it, Mom.
She’s still looking at me as if waiting for me to say something more. I can’t handle the soaring cost of housing in this country, an upward spiral that doesn’t stop even in my sleep. But I’ve long been shut out from the game of capturing a ride on this cresting wave.
Yes. Well, you know that house is all I have.
One house among many in a tiny alley, bunched up against one another like a set of rotting teeth. A two-story house with joints that are wearing down, bones crumbling, the whole thing beginning to lean forward. Just like its owner. A house that has nothing to do with an outside world that confidently makes itself anew every day. That house is the only thing my husband left me. The only thing in my possession I have control and ownership over.
I know. I really do, mumbles my daughter as she stirs the bowl with her chopsticks. But I really don’t have any other choice. Who else can I talk to about this but my mother?
Her voice goes back and forth between acceptance and expectation. She says one more thing. A proposal. If I loan her the money, she’ll pay me interest every month. What she means is the two families living on the second floor, in units with torn linoleum, ceilings stained from leaks, and windows where wind, dust, and noise constantly seep through. She means I should evict them and take in tenants that can pay a jeonsae lump sum up front instead of a monthly rent. And to lend her the jeonsae money.
But evicting them is easier said than done. Only yesterday, the young newlywed on the second floor came down to complain about the ceiling leaking over her sink. She said I should hire a professional this time, not the old man I normally use. She said this as her face showed with a face that betrayed irritation, sympathy, embarrassment, and hesitation.
All right. Let me see what I can do.
That was my reply, but I didn’t have a solution then, either. I didn’t have the means to get it repaired. Neither does the newlywed, who often comes down to beg and complain.
My daughter taps her feet underneath the table. The heels of her sneakers have been worn down at a slant. The trouser ends of her jeans are coming apart, the threads dragging on the ground and filthy. Does she really not understand that it’s little things like this that determine a good first impression? Her poverty, her laziness, her insensitivity, her inattention to detail—why does she give herself away so easily? Why does she allow people to misjudge her? Dignity and neatness, uprightness and cleanliness, why is she so quick to dismiss these qualities? I hold back the things I want to say.
Mom, are you listening to me?
I put down my chopsticks, wipe my mouth, and look her in the eye. I suppose this inconvenience is what family really means. And I’m this girl’s last remaining family. If only because of the fact that I have this house.
All I could say to her is: All right. Let’s think of a way.
At some point, I stopped believing I could change things.
Even at this very moment, I feel that I’m being slowly pushed outside of time itself. If I want to change something, I have to be ready to make a colossal effort. And even if I make that effort, nothing really changes, for better or worse. The only thing you can do is accept the fact that everything that is you is your own fault. You made the choices that made the things that you are. That is the you of this moment. But most people realize this fact a little too late. Think of all the time they waste looking back to the past and forward into the future. Maybe regret is just for old people who don’t have a lot of time left.
I don’t know how to explain things like this. It’s difficult to understand something through words and not through your own experience. It might be especially difficult for my daughter, armed as she is with her youthful strength and headstrong attitude.
Mom, are you listening to me? Mom?
I nod to indicate that I am, indeed, listening to her, but I don’t look her in the eye. If I do as she says and change the rentals upstairs to jeonsae lump-sum depositors, how am I going to afford my monthly hospital bills, medicines, insurance, savings, and spending money? My daughter opens the creaking refrigerator door and pours herself a cup of cold water. It’s night but the air is still hot as ever. I swat away the mosquitos and turn the fan toward my daughter.
I’ll pay for the interest. I’ll give you an allowance. I’ll have more cash next semester when I teach more classes. I’m not going to ask you for money forever. I’m not a child.
I nod. But that doesn’t mean I consent. I’m just trying to be as understanding as I can of her situation. I don’t tell her to try to stand on her own two feet. I can’t say what my parents said to me, that I just have to keep working harder. I must not say that. I say something else.
Can’t you get your own loan for your down payment?
I hear loud talking outside the window accompanied by the noise of a passing motorbike. My daughter looks away from me as if irritated, inflating her cheeks with the cold water like a chipmunk’s. I go on.
I mean, they’re building all these subsidized rental units now. I know they’re a little farther out of the city, but isn’t it better to request one of those?
My daughter is unemployed. She works but is unemployed; it used to be one in ten, three in ten, but now it’s six or seven in ten. I already know such people are ineligible for subsidized rentals or bank loans for deposits.
But the fact that such people are the majority doesn’t make me feel better. It’s only shocking that my daughter should be one of these people. I keep feeling the same disappointment and guilt, every time I think of it. Maybe my daughter studied too much. Or I made her get too many degrees. Maybe she ended up learning to the point of learning what she didn’t need to learn, or what she shouldn’t have learned.
Like how to reject the world. Or how to be out of sync with reality.
Would I be here if I could do that? I’ve already looked into it, Mom. I have to be at work by 7:00 a.m. tomorrow. And I have to prepare for a morning class.
I hear a roar of laughter outside. Someone must have their television on. Anxiety, annoyance, and fatigue flare up on my daughter’s face.
Then sleep here tonight. You can go straight to work from here.
My daughter rubs her sleepy eyes.
Mom, I’m really, really sorry, but this is the last time. The owner keeps asking me to decide before next week. I have no time to go look for something else anymore.
Why do her pleas sometimes sound like threats? Why is her teary-eyed expression always stronger than her being angry at me or shouting? Does my daughter know this? My daughter takes a call in the kitchen and I can hear her speak in a low voice. A friendly and soft voice. A secretive laugh. Her private life, which I try to ignore as much as I can.
She’s a money-sucking hippopotamus. My heart drops to the floor whenever she calls.
This was my late husband’s complaint about our daughter, but he was never so happy as when she came to see us. My daughter never talks about him anymore. Surviving from day to day is hard enough for her without having to look back.
I want to apologize to my daughter for the country’s increasing life expectancies. Maybe that will free me from this torture a bit. But no. There can never be an end to torture unless I lose this house, or die. Otherwise, I will never be free. I hear myself giving in.
Fine. I’ll go to the bank tomorrow and see what kind of loan I can get. I’ll use the house as collateral. And see how much the interest is.
At dawn, I creep into the room my daughter sleeps in and sit at the edge of her bed. I rub her white feet coming out of her pajama pants and stroke her leg. The healthy and strong body of a thirty-something. My daughter has no idea how wonderful it is to have such a thing.
When I was thirty, I married your father and gave birth to you the year after. I took a taxi by myself to the hospital the night you were born. It took fifteen days to contact your father, who was working in the middle of the desert. He had called me from a construction site in a faraway country. We decided your name then. I didn’t really like it, but I went along with it. Because I felt sorry for the man who had to go live in a lonely country to make our living. I wanted to give him the conviction that we were all within that single, tight fence of family.
I was thinking this when my daughter turned in her sleep. I looked up at the clock and steadied my breathing. I could let her sleep for a bit more.
At night, I would imagine as I held you that the house was growing around us. It felt as if a great silence was looking down at me, about to swallow me whole. This feeling was especially acute after the one or two times a year your father would come visit. You couldn’t recognize your own father until you were five. Whenever this man with the hairy legs and deep voice would approach you, you threw a tantrum. Then you would hide behind the sofa and peek out at him. And just when you got used to him enough to hold his hand, he had to leave us again, carrying luggage that was twice, three times your size.
I hear the sound of birds. The people on the second floor have opened their windows and are preparing to face the day. The young man in the single room is probably asleep, so the people busily moving about must be his next-door neighbors, the newlyweds. The sound of a child whining. The sound of a child being scolded.
What time is it?
My daughter’s eyes have cracked open. I tell her to get up, and I leave the room. I pour her a glass of milk at the sink and crack a couple of eggs into a frying pan. My daughter comes in and sits down at the table. The child that was so little and young. I’m imagining a time that my daughter doesn’t remember. Things from a long time ago. They’re still as vivid and fresh as ever to me. Like they happened yesterday.
My daughter breaks the yolk with her fork and sprinkles salt.
Why don’t you move in with me?
My suggestion is sudden. My daughter eats her egg as if she hadn’t heard me. Then she starts gathering up her yellow manila envelope and bundles of printouts.
I’ll discuss it. I can’t decide that on my own.
To avoid further discussion on the subject, I quickly go to the sink and turn on the water to full blast, pushing in the empty dishes and cups on the counter. The dishes clash irritatingly against one another.
My daughter doesn’t finish her milk as she gets up.
Anyway, Mom, please go to the bank. And tell me how it goes. I’ll wait.
I hear the sound of the front door slamming and the following words come out of my mouth.
That goddamn bitch.
My daughter emerged from my own life. She lived for a while under unconditional affection and care. But now she acts like she doesn’t have anything to do with me. She acts like she grew up on her own. She decides and judges everything on her own, and at some point began to inform me of her decisions instead of talking them out with me. Sometimes, she doesn’t do even do that. There are things that she doesn’t tell me but I know regardless. Things that flow between us every day, silent but clear as the blue sky.
She calls me that evening.
You didn’t call, Mom. Did you go to the bank or not?
I had just left work. I try to explain to her about credit lines, variable interest rates, and periods of deferment. This is why this is hard, that is why that is hard—I try to convey what the loan officer had explained to me that morning.
My ear burns hot against my cell phone. I keep getting distracted by the conversations of the people who have come out to this flashy street to avoid their overheated apartments. Young people wasting their vast reserves of time. I’m distracted by the sheer waste of their fresh, youthful evening on this heated pavement. I make a resigned suggestion.
Come live with me for a while.
Would that really be OK?
Of course. You’re my daughter. Of course it’s OK, if it’s you.
I try to draw a line. My daughter realizes I am saying I will not accept anyone except her. She tries to say something to me. Her voice is low and calm.
Mom. OK. Then we’ll move in with you together. It’s really for just a short time. Just until we get some money together. We’ll pay taxes and rent and everything. Don’t worry about that. I have to go. I have another class to teach. Bye.
We? I couldn’t get a single word in before she hung up. I keep pressing the buttons on my screen, slippery from my own sweat, but she doesn’t answer.
When I return from work in the evening, I see a car parked out front. A small red car that looks as if it would burst if it held more than two people. The front gate of the house is half-open. As if unsure to be open or closed.
I push open the gate and see someone at the front door hastily get up. Because of a porchlight behind her, the person I’m seeing is like a dark void.
Good evening, ma’am.
It’s that child. Taller and more slender than my daughter. Small, pale face. Like a white foreigner: long limbs, small head.
Green says she’s going to be late because of work. She told me to go on ahead. I got the key from her. But it didn’t feel right to just barge in.
The child stands, looking as if she isn’t sure what expression to make, what posture to take, or what words to say. I slam the front gate shut, walk up the three steps to the front door, and open it.
Leave your things outside.
I still haven’t decided what to do. I’m not ready to take into my house someone I don’t know anything about and don’t want to know anything about. Or I should say, I’ve decided long ago. I can’t change that. I can’t bring someone like that child into my house. I manage to say something else instead.
Come in for a spell.
It helps to remind myself that this is someone who helped my daughter move her things on such a hot and humid day. I bring her a glass of ice water and put it on the table before her. The ice cubes bump into each other in the glass, making loud clinking sounds. She’s wearing jeans and a white T-shirt and looks three or four years younger than my daughter. Her bangs are soaked from sweat and plastered on her forehead. Where did my daughter meet someone like her? How did it go so wrong with my daughter when everyone else is busy choosing a healthy and financially responsible husband?
Is that all your stuff?
We threw away our bookshelf because it was too old. We threw away almost all of our clothes and books. The refrigerator and washing machine came with the apartment so we left them there.
We don’t make eye contact as we mumble through our conversation. We run out of things to say and a heavy silence falls over us. I’m awash in a wave of fatigue. My eyes keep closing. I let them close and sit in silence. Tick tock tick tock. The second hand of the clock grows louder and louder.
I remember the time when we first met.
Who are you? I had asked. Did you hear me? Who are you?
My voice becomes louder. The child, leaning against the wall at the entrance to the hospital room, stands up straight, surprised. She tells me her name and explains why she’s here. The only thing I want from this stupid game of knowing each other but pretending not to is a promise. That she would never come see my daughter again, no matter what.
Thank you, but you don’t need to be here. This concerns only the family.
Having erected the high wall of family, I push her out of the ward. She nods as if to agree but doesn’t leave right away.
I only came because Green told me she was worried about him.
Green. I don’t like the way she calls my daughter that. Their ridiculous nicknames overwriting the perfectly good names their parents gave them. Her T-shirt is soaking wet. She must’ve been helping my bedridden husband. Despite this, I can’t bring myself to thank her.
Have a good day. Please don’t go through so much trouble next time.
I close the door in her face. Through the frosted glass, I see her silhouette hesitating in the corridor. I keep my anxious eyes on it. Presently, the door opens, and the child comes in again and picks up her bag on a windowsill. She tells me that my husband had two bananas and a yogurt an hour ago. I adjust the humidifier and use my palm to noisily wipe the chair she would’ve sat on. She leaves the room without a word of thanks or goodbye from me. There are a banana and yogurt on the side table. I toss them in the trash. This is not a dream. This is a memory.
That child, who is clearly my daughter’s partner.
That was already five years ago. Or three. I can’t quite remember. She came back to the hospital often enough. On the days she bumped into me, she would wordlessly pick up her bag and leave. On other days, she kept vigil by my husband’s bed either alone or with my daughter. The day we installed his cremated remains in the cemetery, she stood next to my daughter, right where I could see her.
That child. She sits before me now.
What are you doing for work these days?
Of course, it’s me who couldn’t keep her mouth shut.
I’m learning to cook. I work at a small restaurant. I write articles once in a while. And take pictures.
I can scarcely breathe. Surely not just because of the stuffy air in the room. Pretending to be hot, I open the window and turn on a fan.
Just publicity, ma’am. Little snippets, restaurant recommendations.
Damp air rolls into the room, heralding a rainstorm.
Don’t you have any fixed income? How do you pay rent and expenses?
Her eyes, so reluctant to meet my gaze, finally connect with mine. Hesitation, as if trying to determine whether she should answer or not. Straining to find the right words. She then digs through her bag and takes out a book. The photo on the cover is full of brightly colored dishes and fresh cooking materials. She turns to the first page, writes on it, and places it before me.
To Green’s mother.
The page she has it opened to is filled with the names of the book’s authors. The letters are so tiny they’re like scattered grains of rice. I squint as I look for her name and biographical information.
Green said she had got your permission, which is the only reason I came. I’m sorry . . .
Look, my daughter’s name isn’t Green.
The child looks up at me.
I know. I’m just so used to calling her that.
I close the book and push it back to her.
She speaks again.
Green and I both put our money down for the jeonsae deposit for that house. And last year, Green said she really needed the money for something, so she took out the jeonsae deposit and switched it to a monthly rental. I really didn’t have a choice. If there was any other way, I wouldn’t be here now.
My mind is foggy with questions that rise up like smoke. Until this moment, I had no idea how they came to live in their last house. I had no idea how much they each paid into it or how they covered their expenses. I do know it includes a nest egg I’ve given to my daughter. I’d contributed to their living together, in other words. I don’t ask why my daughter borrowed the money or how much it was. I want to make it clear that I have no intention of assuming responsibility for such a thing.
Please, I’m not blaming Green. We’re going to find a way to be together no matter what. Even if it means getting rid of all those things outside.
When she gets up to leave, the sky rips into a squall. I can hear the children living upstairs shout for their mother.
Fine, I say to her as she puts on her shoes in the foyer. Let’s bring your things in. At least stay here until the rain stops.
The child doesn’t say anything as she grabs her bags in the middle of our yard and brings them in. She seems enraged and relieved at the same time. She’s soaked within seconds. I find her a dry towel.
Foolishly borrowing someone else’s money when you can’t even pay it back.
My daughter’s mistake is my own as well. That’s one thought. Another is that they’re both adults over thirty, they ought to figure things out on their own. All sorts of different thoughts noisily clash in my mind.
My migraine stretches its arms and gets up from its bed.
These kids could be just clever, fancy thugs. They might teach you how to be one in college, encouraging you to use something stronger than fists. Which is why you get victims like me, clueless as to whether she was robbed until it’s too late.
Would you like some coffee?
I have to bump into that child in the kitchen every morning. Her nickname is Rain. Not that I have ever called her that out loud.
I think it would be a good idea if we saw as little as possible of each other. Especially in the morning.
That was the first thing I said to her since agreeing to let her stay. That was a few days ago, right in this spot. The kitchen had been dreamlike with the toasted smell of coffee. She looked at me for a moment before concentrating again on pouring the hot water over the grounds. It took her a while to pour enough for two mugs. She set one down on the table.
I have to go to work by ten, so this is when I get up. And I have to have my coffee in the morning. As you know, I pay my share of the rent and expenses. We’ve even given you four months of rent in advance. I understand it’s an inconvenience for you, so we’ll be as careful as possible. But I think you should know that we have rights, too.
What really silenced me wasn’t this bold statement or her bad manners. It was the fact that she had a point. I had nothing to say to that.
When she left the kitchen, I practically ran back to my room. I sat on the edge of my bed and thought about what she said. Rent, expenses, rights, money that I received in exchange for my entitlement as a parent. The shame and insult that made my heart pound. The spaces in which I can feel safe keep shrinking, like a piece of paper folded in half and again in half. Then, eventually, they’ll see I’ve disappeared altogether. But I’m not the one disappearing, it’s the ground I stand on. Not that they’ll realize even that.
After that morning I stopped eating breakfast.
Sometimes, I don’t remember why I’m in the kitchen. Until the child offers me coffee and apple slices. Then goes back to reading whatever is on her sheets of paper.
I know what they talk about at night. The things they say when they think I’m sleeping (or when they’re treating me like I don’t exist), as they sit on the sofa in the living room, talking in low voices. Clinking together cups that I’m sure contain beer.
Shall we go up there again? asks my daughter.
Let’s wait a bit longer.
What do you think of what that asshole said? Domestic dispute. Telling us to mind our own business. What an asshole! No one said anything about him, even those cops! When they knew what was going on. They think the way to solve something is to ignore it. How dare he say we should shut up.
They’re talking about the man on the second floor. The couple upstairs began fighting early in the evening, and soon it got so loud that we could hear every word. I told her it was nothing, but my daughter shook me off and went upstairs. The child went up after her.
Who the hell are you! Shut the door! Get out!
I came out to the yard when I heard the man shouting. I called up to the second floor.
She’s my daughter! I’ll tell her to come down. And please don’t shout so much when everyone else is so quiet. Dear, come downstairs now.
There was a brief silence.
Look, young lady, this is a domestic dispute. It’s none of your goddamn business.
I could hear the barely contained rage in his voice. My daughter jumped right back in.
Sir, your children are watching. This goes way beyond being a domestic dispute, hitting people is a crime! Domestic violence is against the law! Someone, please call the police! Don’t just stand around looking, call the police! All of you! Do something for once!
The police took a long time coming. The police car flashed its lights and woke up the whole neighborhood while my daughter got into yet another argument with the police. She really lost it when they told her that they didn’t want to intervene in a domestic dispute and that the children’s mother did not want to press charges.
What kind of a person would want to press charges when the perpetrator is standing right in front of her? Don’t just stand there with your hands tied, do something! At least pretend to find out what happened, goddammit!
This is a small neighborhood. I really wish they wouldn’t attract attention to themselves like this. I really wish they could just ignore what was going on with that married couple and their kids. Those two, they have no idea how hard it is to be married and have a family. They’re not even ashamed of not knowing. They’re not even thinking who should really be ashamed here. I caught a glimpse of the crowd gathering outside our gate and went back to my room, shut the door, and lay down.
And after all that hullaballoo, there they sat drilling into my fragile sleep with their whispering voices.
It’s easy to just ignore it. So easy. All you have to do is say you didn’t know.
Right? God, I hate people. People are the worst. That couple should know better, but they don’t. Couldn’t they hear their own kids crying? Couldn’t they dial it down, just for the sake of the kids? And what’s up with the people in this neighborhood? Do they think it’s all a soap opera or something? They’re listening, they know what’s going on. God, these people.
Lower your voice. You’ll wake your mother.
My daughter’s voice is heated, and the child’s voice is somewhat cool. What’s cool settles, what’s hot rises. Two arcs forming a circle. If mixed, they just might reach the right temperature.
What on earth do they think this world is about? Do they really believe it’s something grand and wonderful like something out of a book? That it’s something that can be easily turned over if only a few people got together and lifted it together?
I hear a cell phone alarm go off. My daughter appears in the kitchen.
I’m the last to get up again. Hey Mom, are you leaving already? This early? What the hell, you guys had coffee together without me.
My daughter gives me a look before giving the child a one-armed hug around her shoulders. I instinctively look away and try not to seem disgusted.
I’m going to church before work, I say, taking calming breaths. Don’t mind me.
Like an idiot, I’m talking to the fridge.
My daughter sits down at the table, hugging one of her knees, grumbling about something.
I’ve never missed church, except when I’m sick.
I say this resolutely but it’s a lie. I turn my back on my daughter who is fiddling with the toes of the leg she is hugging. I leave the kitchen. When I’m putting on my shoes in the foyer, the child comes up to me and hands me a large thermos and a little medicine case.
This is coffee. And this is for your medicine. The lids have different days of the week on them. So you can keep track.
She must’ve noticed me mumbling about whether I’ve had my pills or not. Cornered, I take the things without a word and leave the house. The thermos has a nice solid feel and beautiful color. So does the plastic medicine case with its different compartments. I wipe them down with my handkerchief as I walk to church. They’re too good to throw away. If I do, I’ll have to get new ones, anyway.
There’s a group of people standing outside the church and talking. I wait for them to go in before entering.
I hear your daughter moved in! How nice.
Despite my hiding in the back pews, there are always people who find me out.
How lovely! Your daughter must’ve got them for you.
They immediately ferret out any little changes. There I sit, holding a long and shining thermos instead of a plastic water bottle. And my small and light umbrella, my cute little handbag. My brooch with the lace flowers. My cell phone with its wallpaper, a photo of me and my daughter.
Your daughter is a college professor, right?
Really? What a good job you did raising her. What a blessing. There’s no greater blessing than a child’s success.
You do know that the deaconess here used to be a teacher herself. She spared no expense educating her daughter. But isn’t it worth it, to have such a return on investment.
It’s like someone pressed a button and they can’t stop talking, exaggerating the facts of my life. Have they read my mind and realized I wasn’t really here to pray? Were they trying to prevent me from putting my hands together, closing my eyes, and lamenting to the Lord, asking why he gave me such a great burden?
I almost blurt out that my daughter fills her heavy bags with books and printouts filled with bizarre words, setting off across the country like an itinerant salesman. That she’s a pitiful girl who eats a meal in her tiny car after class, takes a cramped nap, and comes back home to immerse herself in books and writing again until she falls asleep. These unspoken words pound me in the chest like an assault. And now here she was, paying me a rent that was more of a bribe, having barged in with some strange girl and shaming her parents. The words are about to leak out of my mouth.
Amid their chatter, I sneak a look at the altar.
When I learned that the person my daughter wrote letters to and talked to on the phone every night was a girl, I left her alone. Because that kind of thing happens among young girls. When she entered college and started living on her own, I detected something strange but tried my hardest to ignore the signs, to stay away. Maybe that’s when my daughter became so distanced from me that I couldn’t do anything about it later on. Maybe, like a fool, I had lost the chance to do something about it.
All I did back then was to sit here where I could see the altar and guard my silence, carefully getting a handle on the words that the other people sitting here might overhear. Words I wanted to say, that I couldn’t say, that I shouldn’t say. Now words had no meaning for me. Who could I say these words to? Who would listen? Words I couldn’t say or listen to. Words that belong to no one.
From 딸에 대하여 ("About My Daughter"). © 2017 by 김혜진 (Hyejin Kim). First published in Korea in 2017 by Minumsa Publishing Co., Ltd. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2019 by Anton Hur. All rights reserved.
A novel first published in Thailand in 2003 and a collection of short-stories stretching back to the mid-1990s, both now available in English for the first time, show a confident writer at the top of her game, with a distinctive skill to conjure unique personalities on the page.
Five-year-old Kampol Changsamran patiently waits in his village for the return of his father, Wasu. “I’ll be back in a bit,” Wasu had promised hours earlier, and Kampol believed him, yet by nightfall the boy is still alone. Concerned neighbors, well aware that Kampol’s mother also recently abandoned the family, take him in for the night. So begins Duanwad Pimwana’s poignant Bright, originally published in 2003 and now translated into English by Mui Poopoksakul for Two Lines Press. Poopoksakul has also translated Pimwana’s short story collection, Arid Dreams, for Feminist Press, and the two books hit bookstores in the US in April. These small volumes fashion a mini retrospective of sorts for the Thai author’s work, as some stories included in Arid Dreams stretch back to the mid-1990s, when Pimwana first made her appearance on Thailand’s literary scene. Regardless of the periods in which they were composed, all of the narratives now available in English for the first time show a confident writer at the top of her game, evidence of Pimwana’s world-building strengths and her skill at conjuring unique personalities on the page.
Episodic in nature, Bright follows Kampol in his dealings with his neighbors, from Chong, the local grocer who takes the boy under his wing, to Oan, Kampol’s closest friend. In brief chapters, Pimwana guides the reader through the instability that characterizes life in the boy’s village, relaying the actions and habits of her characters primarily in a close third person perspective that hovers around Kampol. This infuses the narration of each adventure recounted in the book with a curiosity similar to that of the child protagonist. The resulting contrast between a child’s point of view and our own perceptions as adult readers can have a comical effect. In the chapter “Pony Express,” for instance, Kampol is the last person to speak with local fisherman Tia before his death. Looking through a window, the boy catches the man in the middle of a sexual encounter, but Pimwana’s narration remains close to Kampol’s own interpretation of the episode:
“[Tia] was up to something that Kampol didn’t understand. He was panting and bumping up and down as if he were on horseback . . . It was very curious the way Tia’s body was moving, it looked like he was riding the merry-go-round at the shrine fair, except on a faster horse and didn’t rotate.”
Tia’s adult daughter later asks the cooks at her father’s funeral about rumblings that the man died while in bed with a woman. The punch line lands thanks to the author’s narration, whose childlike innocence acts as the joke’s straight man, setting the reader up to be knocked flat.
This innocent perspective also provides Pimwana opportunity to emphasize the harrowing consequences of naivety. Throughout the novel, Kampol’s parents make periodic appearances, real and imagined, and each brief reunion fools the boy into trusting his life will return to its past normalcy. In the chapter “A New Home,” Wasu finally returns to the village to take Kampol to a new house, yet Wasu’s latest partner, Mama Lim, greets the child with “the barest of smiles.” This cold reception is enough to clue the reader in on the impending aftermath of the encounter, yet Kampol fails to notice her disappointment and instead acts like an excited boy ready to start anew. It isn’t until Wasu leaves him back at the village, in front of Chong’s market, that Kampol, clutching a toy, realizes his rejection and shifts into melancholy: “[He] watched his father walk off until he disappeared . . . He opened his hand: the blue action figure glinted in the dim light.”
Similarly, in the chapter “The Rice Giveaway,” Kampol breaks free from his friend Oan and the boy’s mother because he sees his parents among the throngs of villagers crowding a shrine’s rice giveaway:
“. . . she was just over there. He got very excited. He yelled for her . . . Kampol tried to push forward in hopes of catching up to his mother but it got him nowhere . . . When he looked behind him another time, he saw his father’s head . . . Kampol yelled to them.” (79)
Again, Pimwana uses Kampol’s curiosity and determination as a driving force in her narration, and in doing so, she removes any sense of doubt from the boy’s observations: Kampol “saw” his father; his mother “was just over there.” Even after the boy watches the final unfamiliar face leave the giveaway, he remains positive he saw his parents, and the narrator refuses to betray Kampol’s hope, creating for the reader an understanding of the boy’s mindset, as well as his crushing disappointment.
Beyond Duanwad Pimwana’s devoted handling of Kampol’s perspective, what makes Bright a pleasure is her careful effort in crafting a world of people for the boy to investigate. Characters like Chong evolve with each episode, growing ever more fond of Kampol, and despite introducing scores of names and faces, there is never a sense that the author skimps on rounding each character into an individual. Pimwana’s use of characterization is superb, and while not everybody is provided a large arc in which to mature, there’s enough here to give Kampol’s environment heft and dimension.
This skillful pattern of character building is also present in Pimwana’s short story collection, Arid Dreams, where the lives of the lower and middle classes are explored across thirteen stories. In each, the author speaks to the shifting social landscape of Thailand, tackling gender and economic disparities, and while not every tale sticks with the reader, the hits far outweigh the misses. The result is a book worth recommending.
In the title story, a vacationing single man becomes uncomfortably enthralled with a beachside masseuse, only to bristle when he learns she also works as a prostitute for non-Thai men. “Kanda’s Eyebrows” revolves around a man, Gleur, disgusted with the way his wife carries herself in public; and “Within These Walls” concerns a woman waiting, somewhat expectantly, for her injured husband to die in the hospital. In these stories, Pimwana keenly works to mold characters who shun the simplicity of a black and white existence. As a result, the reader is left in the uncomfortable position of developing sympathy for Pimwana’s disagreeable protagonists, be it due to the vacationing beachgoer’s initial failure to secure a place to sleep, the reveal of Gleur’s own revolting appearance, or the expectant wife’s surprise when she learns her husband’s injuries aren’t fatal after all. As she rushes to be by his side, praying he doesn’t regain consciousness before her arrival (“A sick person wants somebody to care for him,” she reasons), it’s inevitable to feel compassion for her, if only a sliver.
Yet not all of the protagonists in Arid Dreams tread on the edge of conventional morality. In “The Way of the Moon,” a father and son hike under moonlight and bond around a campfire, while “Sandals” follows a girl and her brother as they contemplate disobeying their parents’ demands. In these stories, the same inquisitiveness that occupies much of Bright returns, and it showcases Piwana’s authorial range throughout her career. Hers is a powerful voice deserving of worldwide attention. Thanks to the superb work of translator Mui Poopoksakul, a whole new audience will now have the opportunity to discover these enticing landscapes filled with troubled, memorable characters.