Elegy for a Stillborn Story

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1. By the time you read it, this story will have died. Slippery and amorphous, it will have disappeared into a cold, slender groove in my brain.  Like a mountaineer tethered to friends, tiptoeing around a crevasse, my story has taken other stories, other ideas, with it, all of them connected by a thin cord, all sliding down the unreachable tongue of a glacier. It began one way, a story about a boy, and then it became about something else: a death, a dog, a flying elephant, a street in Seoul.  One moment, I thought I had the story by its shoulders, but I was simply holding a shapeless protuberance of ice.  Other times I wrested it up with frostbitten fingers only to find it had changed.   It was born, or stillborn; I couldn’t tell the difference.  I mourned in the midst of celebration.  I buried it and dug it back out.  It was always ending and beginning. How do you give such a thing a funeral? 2. In the time it has taken me to write this, someone my husband knew has died.  Not a family member or close friend, but rather a boy from his youth.  A kid whose face changed dramatically over time, like all faces change, years filling out the space around the eyes, the borders of the jaw morphing into intractability.  Life sinking into the flesh, just a little, like a month-old pumpkin.  Once, my husband and this boy sat in high school at a dinged-up wood table and drew together with colored pencils.  I don’t know if the boy was any good.  My husband is good, at drawing and many other things, but death has a way of making the things you’re good at seem quite ridiculous. I found my husband in his study, his face in his hands.  “He was struck by a car,” he said. The boy, who was now a man, and now, also, nothing, had argued with his girlfriend.  He was drunk.  He shouted.  He pushed her.  Then he walked out into the street in Seoul and was hit by a car.  He was doing some things, and then, just as suddenly, he wasn’t. My husband and I stood together, looking at pictures on Facebook.  The man smiling, his girlfriend on his lap, one hand on her thigh, the other gripping a sweaty beer.  The man with his dog, a little white Pekinese, soft as the corner of a cloud.  The man making silly faces, mugging, kissing the dog. “His girlfriend barely speaks English,” my husband said.  “She’s trying to find out what to do with the body.”  Like that, he had become a body.  Something that other people have to deal with.  Something without a choice. “I’m so sorry,” I said.  “Did you know him well?” “No,” my husband said.  “I hadn’t seen him for years.”  He wept.  It was death in the abstract that was bothering him.  The endness of it.  The boy would not draw again.  The man would not hold his girlfriend in his lap, squeezing her thigh.  Somewhere someone was already planning a funeral for him in which he would be exalted, all his best qualities enumerated, all his worst sins expunged.  No one would talk about how fucking happy he was with his girlfriend and a beer or how the last things he did were ugly and hung in the air over the bar after he was dead.  He had already become an idea. I could not stop thinking about the dog.  Was it in an apartment in Korea, waiting to be walked?  Would the girlfriend take it in?  In all the confusion and chaos, the body taking precedence, who would purchase food for it?  Who would even think of it, with so much else to think of?  And what was possible in the realm of the dog’s understanding?  How could it grasp that one day the man was there, squeezing it, kissing its cloud-cheeks, taking pictures with it pressed into the bones of the man’s face, and another day he simply wasn’t? 3. By the time you read this, a story will have been born.  It will be saved to a hard drive and published.  It will appear and speak its truth.  It will squall so you can’t ignore it. We call our books our children, our babies.  At a conference recently, a writer shocked everyone by saying that when she held her book in her hands, it felt like a dead thing.  The audience gasped because it was vivid and true.  Because it was like looking at a skeleton, stripped of the skin, and knowing for the first time the truth of what we are. When we write books, we say we have created something, but this isn’t at all true.  We can’t create out of nothing.  We create by listening.  If you want to learn to write, you should learn to prick up your ears to the soft course of your blood. The words become something, the author becomes something, and finally, this something becomes a story.  The story has to die, over and over, as its organs fail, as you find which parts are no longer useful.  Throw a kidney out here, a knot of arteries there.  Be ruthless about it, for if you aren’t, you will end up with the equivalent of an embalmed body.  An imitation of life. I remember my first funeral, the husband of a woman who sometimes carpooled us to school with her children.  His car stalled on the train tracks.  “Don’t look at him unless you’re ready,” my mother warned me at the viewing.  I wasn’t sure how to ready myself, but I was a child, and curious, so I looked.  I memorized the details.  The thin thread that stitched together his lips.  His hands, clean and folded.  They had taken a blackened body smashed to bits by a train and made it look almost normal.  If you looked quick.  If you didn’t search. If a writer is lazy, you can always tell.  You’ll see the seams in the story, the thread between the lips.  If she tells too much, the story will lose its shape in the lard of excess information.  Too little leaves a story limping along, a stray dog on the beach, its ribs in relief.  A cautious writer writes around the edges until there are only edges.  An overly bold writer won’t stop whispering in your ear over dinner. We know this, but we forget it again and again.  We hone our voices, hold tuning forks toward ourselves, trying to catch our secret frequencies.  But we make the mistake of hoping for the living story and fearing the dead.  We never allow for something to become nothing. 4. To ride or to write this story, you must be this tall. At seven, I almost died inside the guts of a pink, metal elephant. Attached to a rotating column, the elephant took me around in a quick approximation of flight, dipping and rising.  I don’t remember the name of this contraption.  It was but one ride in an amusement park of rides, built from a blueprint, constructed with polymers and plastic, held together by screws and bolts that threatened, always, to work their way out in flight.  Operated by a teenaged kid who took the tickets with loose, clammy fingers, watched his passengers board while a different movie played across his eyes, one with the promise of getting laid on a sticky summer night. I climbed inside, the metal bar lowered across my thighs. Once up in the air, I didn’t know anything about the world outside the pink elephant.  In front of me was the facsimile of a control panel, buttons and levers that suggested something real that didn’t exist.  While the ride was malfunctioning, I grabbed at those dials and joysticks, not so much thinking I could control the elephant – which by then had somehow managed to dangle precariously at ninety degrees, doing its best to spill me out – but instead using them to hold on.  A two inch piece of plastic in my fist.  That’s what I believed in. The purpose of the ride was to disorient you, to discombobulate you, to create the illusion that you, a mere child, were free.  But then I was. I held on, and though the machine failed me, the two inches of plastic did not.  The ride could not be stopped in mid-flight, so I clung to the elephant for what seemed like hours, but in reality was probably three minutes.  My mother screamed below, my grandmother’s pale, fleshy arms gesticulated wildly around the teenager’s head.  From above, it looked she was bludgeoning him with a cut of meat.  I couldn’t hear anything above the shaking of the elephant, the grinding of metal.  I held on.  I was part of something happening, the fullness of that.  And when it was over, the boy came over, infused with good will, with the intention of smiling his way into making me forget what had happened.  My family played along.  I would not be scarred.  They would not let this happen.  So I was given a free ride on one of the properly functioning elephants, made to ride against my will, so we could all re-write the scene with a better ending. I’m not telling you this story because I learned something, though I did, even if I couldn’t articulate it.  I was at the mercy of a metal elephant.  Now I am at the mercy of a story, and so are you.  Hold on tight.  Just because I survived doesn’t mean you will.  All the time there are real stories of people walking beneath roller coasters who lose their heads, decapitated quite accidentally by someone’s tennis shoes. 5. RIP, story.  Hope you’re having an awesome birthday in heaven. Writers don’t always write their way to the end.  We can start with the end and move backwards, retracing our steps.  We can do a foxtrot with the story and dance our way into something else entirely.  A novel, a prose-poem, a thing-in-stories. What is a beginning or an ending if we know the story before we write it?   When we dream, aren’t those our forgotten stories, a million versions of them? Something reminds us of what we already know, an old bear trap waiting to clamp down on the dark images lost in our woods. If we’re doing it right, the story will change us.  It will die in our arms, and we will press our lips to it and breathe an idea back in.  We will stand among hundreds of our stories gathered in piles at our feet, and we won’t know if we’re in a cemetery or a nursery. You don’t have to write to watch a story live and die, to catch it changing shape.  You just have to pay attention. 6. A few days after my husband’s friend died, Facebook sent us a reminder that it was his birthday. Wish him a happy birthday, it said.  Send him a gift. It was heartbreaking – the ignorance of technology, the possibility of a buried man’s birthday.  We thought about his family, his close friends, the people who were also getting such reminders.  And yet, when we went to his page, we found that his friends had turned it into the world’s most raucous funeral.  They were celebrating him, shouting cheerful encomiums into cyberspace. Hey man, I hadn’t seen you in a while, but you were cool as shit.  Dude, it fucking sucks you’re not here. :-(  RIP.  Hope you’re having an awesome birthday in heaven. “Can you believe this?” my husband asked.  He was right.  It was ridiculous.  It was irreverent. It was like he wasn’t dead. But I also understood, in a way.  They had sent him a gift, a story.  He was dead, and then he wasn’t.  His story was beginning and ending all over again, both at the same time.  He was a boy with colored pencils, drawing with another boy at an old, dinged-up table.  He was gone, celebrating on a cloud with his girlfriend in his lap, one hand squeezing her thigh and the other gripping a sweaty beer. The little dog, forever, was pressed to his face. [Image credit: Bruce Fingerhood]

Traveling By Faith: Thoughts on Being an Iranian American Writer

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Inside a quiet house, you can hear their uncertain, quavering calls bouncing off each other.  It seems less an evolved system of communication than a childhood game of telephone. Plaintive, muffled wails inside a dense, confused cacophony. On particularly foggy nights in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, the geese become lost. You’d think they would develop a more sophisticated avian GPS system, glow-in-the-dark eyes or bioluminescent feathers.  Instead they hurtle themselves willy-nilly into nothing.  If they’re lucky, they won’t meet power lines or find themselves lured into the ghostly lights of airports.  They’ll travel by faith and with alacrity until the fog burns off or blows away, whichever comes first.  Some hour when they least expect it, they’ll get their bearings, and the world will have some order to it again. A steady horizon to navigate by, a solid earth for take-offs and landings.  Until then, the geese muddle along, trying to make sense of the night, of each other. Being a writer is like this. Having all the certainty of a goose inside a cloud. You fly by moving your fingers across a keyboard, hoping to write your way out of confusion and into something that makes sense to you and others.  Hoping people will recognize your voice, your unique and universal language.  English, French, or Farsi.  Perhaps if you do it well, you will write your way into a community. Some company for foggy nights. Three months ago, the fog arrived early, blending with the gray blankness of a December afternoon.  I was supposed to be in San Francisco, one foggy city to another, to read from my first novel.  Standing among writers in a giant conference room in the San Francisco Public Library, all of us members of the Association of Iranian American Writers, all of us taking part in We Are All Iran, an event to mark the six month anniversary of the Iranian Elections.  It would have been my first reading. For weeks I practiced for my ten minutes at the podium, planted in pantyhose and an itchy skirt on the carpet in front of my husband.  Our dog hated my reading voice and sat on my toes, whining.  Or maybe she just sensed my fear, the million ways I thought I might fail myself and everyone else. For one thing, I had not even seen my own finished book.  Because the event was a few weeks before the release date, my publisher had copies flown in directly off the press.  I would be meeting my novel, Bone Worship, for the first time in a room full of passionate Iranians, all of whom had bigger concerns than my literary debut.  They were there to talk about the Green Revolution, about Mousavi and Ahmadinejad.  They would unveil a sculpture of Neda, miraculously restored somehow by art, the obscenely vivid blood no longer framing her beautiful face.  It was important, it was dramatic.  I was a newbie, a fiction writer.  I wasn’t sure how I fit in, if at all. Afraid of being asked questions about the political and humanitarian crisis while armed with only an outsider’s knowledge of Iran, I read every news story I could find, yet I still felt ignorant.  Maybe it wasn’t a matter of knowledge at all, but rather identity.  I had no war story to tell.  The child of an Iranian father and an American mother, who grew up treated "white."  Any racism was peripheral, some muted noise once when my brother and I were denied entry into a Christian nursery school for being “of a heathen race.”  My friends said they often forgot about the Iranian part of me, and so I did too.  It was almost a joke.  I had a Southern accent: not by way of Shiraz, but of Gaffney, South Carolina. I was intimidated by the thought of meeting so many brilliant Iranian American writers – Esther Kamkar, Persis Karim, Angella Nazarian – who write beautifully and with distinct political power, when I had a handful of silly stories to my name about people hibernating underground, about funeral directors, about sullen suburban teenagers eating ant poison.  I had never written a serious story about race.  I had never – gulp – even called myself “Iranian American” before.  Would I find my community, or would an audience of Iranians laugh at me? I never found out. The fog rolled in.  Joining it was a slight suggestion of ice, a hazard that merely glazed people’s yards and not the air strip.  It was enough, however, for all the flights out of the Eugene airport to be canceled. When I walked back to my car, my suitcases dangling stupidly from my hands, I heard the geese for the first time over the silent airport. I didn’t think then of the anniversary of the elections, or of the opposition in Iran clashing with the Basij.  Nor did I think of everyone else, navigating the notorious Tehran traffic, trying to buy basic groceries at insanely inflated costs.  I didn’t think of my family there, the demonstrations outside their windows like a never-ending parade.  Normal life going on in a way we would never consider normal, all of it occasionally punctuated by bursts of violence.   I didn’t think about that.  I just thought about what was supposed to be my first reading.  My first time as an Iranian American. I went home and unpacked my bags on the bed, my clothes heavy and damp.  My dog came and stared at me, hopeful I wouldn’t start reading aloud again.  I put away something I had written on a note card to read at the event, an insufficient dedication to the people of Iran, from their half-daughter who didn’t speak Farsi, who had never seen their country, but who hoped to one day.  Who still hopes to. Now that it was no longer needed, the sun came out and lit up the whole room. Bone Worship, the novel that I would have read from, is about an American daughter trying to connect with her Iranian father, across chasms real and imagined.  I didn’t realize when I wrote it that I was trying, in my own way, to write a bridge to my family in Iran.  I didn’t know if they would ever see it or if it would be translated so they could understand it.  And yet, a few weeks after my canceled flight, I learned that one of my Iranian cousins, who speaks English, found my book online.  She showed it to my grandmother in Tehran, who couldn’t translate the title or the text, but who stopped and ran her fingers over my photograph on the jacket flap. My grandmother had never seen me before.  Maybe a baby picture, once, thirty years ago.  Now, for the first time, she recognized something in my face, a nearly perfect resemblance to one of my aunts.  She looked at me, then, on the other side of the world and the other side of a book and saw someone who was, at least in her eyes, recognizably Iranian, and perhaps recognizably family.  Even though we couldn’t see or hear each other.  Even though we were still separated by that chasm, we were moving closer, traveling by faith. [Image credit: Derek Bakken]