Autographs and Pen Pals

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I once lived for furthering my collection of autographed books.  Getting a book signed meant going to hear the author read, waiting in line with other fans, and then, finally, being presented with the chance  to utter words of praise.  Sometimes it meant getting teary-eyed with envy, worrying over whether I would ever write anything so poignant.  This happened when Amy Tan walked by in purple velvet with her lap dog trailing behind her.  During middle and high school, at the height of my obsession with autographs, I spent a lot of time writing letters, poems that exhibited the same longing for impossible love, and short stories that revealed I was fixated on the same themes of displacement and loneliness that I am now.

I heard Jamaica Kincaid read twice.  The first time she read at the local university from her novel Lucy.  I was in seventh grade and inexperienced in matters of love.  She read a passage about sucking on a boy’s tongue and I was mesmerized.  She stood before a large audience and I couldn’t help but see that she was someone important.  The second time I went to hear her read, I got Lucy signed by her before she spoke.  My father told her that I wanted to be a writer.  She didn’t say anything, only proudly signed her name.  Later, during the Q & A, she asked in perfectly enunciated words, “Where is that girl who wants to be a writer?”  I shyly raised my hand.  She went on to recommend Gertrude Stein to me.  Following the reading, I began to imagine Jamaica Kincaid as my writing teacher.  With her intimidating stature, I divined she would be just as intimidating of a teacher.  I thought only she would be capable of whipping my writing into shape.  I wanted her to treat my writing so harshly that my only option would be improvement.

Yevgeniy Yevtushenko read in Russian at the Jewish Community Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Neither my father nor I spoke Russian, but my father decided to expose me to culture.  What I remember is Yevtushenko’s ostentatious blue jacket and his sweeping gestures when he spoke.  I later learned Russian, partly thanks to falling in love with his incomprehensible poetic voice, I read some of the poems from his collected works, wondering which he might have read that evening. 

When Jennifer Egan came to the suburban Barnes and Nobel to read from her novel The Invisible Circus, my mother and I were the only audience members.  Afterwards, I asked Egan one of those typical questions about her writing schedule.  I came away with the interesting information that she worked part-time as a detective.  Later, I composed a letter to her, which led to another obsession.  I spent a grand portion of the day waiting for the mail.  A letter was just another passage into the literary world.  Not only was I waiting for personal letters, I was also waiting for acceptances from literary journals.

The postman arrived after I got home from school, so I would sit in the armchair near the window and wait for his footsteps.  They would culminate in the metal clamor of the mailbox closing.  When he had moved on to the next house, I would open the door and collect the mail.

I received one response from Jennifer Egan and an acceptance from a neighborhood newspaper, but most often I received letters from my pen pal who lived on the other side of the city.  I met her at a poetry reading at a café called Brewed Awakenings.  I played Irish tin whistle and read some poetry.  She came up to me afterwards and gave me a copy of the literary journal called Zink in which she had been published.  She was also a writer and yet she was incredibly accessible.  She asked for my address, and pulled a blank piece of paper from the pouch around her neck for me to write on.  I felt uncomfortable about giving a stranger my address, but I did it anyway.  At that time of my life I said “yes” to everything.

To my surprise, a few days later I received a typed letter from her in a handmade envelope.  I wrote back and she was quick to respond.  It wasn’t long before I began to live my life in order to write it to her in a letter.  The events that occurred during the day, occurred so that I could describe them.  It was then that my writing probably took on its autobiographical quality.

As an adult, I haven’t had such a faithful pen pal, another writer with whom to commiserate.  The advent of email and real responsibilities make it impossible to live just for handwritten letters, but most of all, it’s hard to find someone who can be a friend and somewhat of an idol at the same time.

Though I once attended readings regularly and took great comfort in spending Sunday night at the fiction series at the KGB Bar, some of the luster has been lost.  Writers seem so accessible that an autographed book doesn’t bring me the same pleasure as it once did and writers seem just as much friends as idols.  Now a writer myself, I realize that writing isn’t such a magical process.  Still, there are moments when I can happily transport myself to those simpler times of books and letters, the time when I was open to every ounce of experience.  Just recently I came away from a reading with a signed copy of Joshua Cohen’s Witz, heard Mary Gaitskill read at the crowded Franklin Park Reading Series, and went to hear Cory Doctorow, Rivka Galchen, and Gary Schteyngart talk about the bleak future while drinking dark and stormys.  I also went to hear Jennifer Egan read at Greenlight Bookstore.  This time it was to a packed house, inspiring me with the possibility that my writing can also grow in this way.

[Image credit: Weston Boyd]

Nostalgia for a Life Never Lived and The Work of Rumer Godden


Recently I have become nostalgic for the out of print treasures of Rumer Godden (1907-1998).  Each time I find a copy in the thrift store I am bombarded by memories of the days when I was content to bask in the sensual details characteristic of her work, but when I take the book home to read, it often collects dust on my shelf because I know I will never have the same experience I did when I first read the books as a teenager.   At that time, I was intrigued that despite Godden’s deep personal experience, she remained an outsider in the world in which she wrote, just as I felt I was an outsider in my world.

In the novel Peacock Spring, the protagonist Una is pleasantly overwhelmed by the transformation into a woman that she must endure when she runs away from her father’s house and travels the Indian countryside to prevent the abortion that she believes he will force her to have.  Her lover Ravi begins to treat her with less affection, though they were once equals wrapped up in the romance of the poetry he wrote and they discussed.  He is in control of her disguise, “Ravi painted her eyebrows and lashes with the same dye; it stung her eyes and the tears made the dye run.  ‘All the better,’ said Ravi.  ‘As my bride you have just been parted from your mother.  Your eyes are red and weeping.  Now go and dry your hair in the sun.’” Yet the culture has drawn Una in so much she hardly considers eschewing it.  In real life, Godden felt similarly about India, where her father was employed and where she spent most of her childhood.  As an adult, she returned to India to run a dance school together with her sister, an endeavor that lasted twenty years.  In a Godden biography, Anne Chisholm writes about the way Godden feels about her birth home, “Like many contemporaries who shared the experience, they rejected, deep inside themselves, the notion that this dreary place was their real home.”

When Godden isn’t escaping into the scents and colors of India, she escapes into a world of nuns. In 1968 she converted to Roman Catholicism.  Two of her books Five For Sorrow, Ten for Joy and In This House of Brede focus on the religious life.  They were reprinted by the Catholic Press Loyola Classics.  In Black Narcissus she escapes into both worlds simultaneously.  In an isolated convent the nuns are enticed by the sexuality of British agent Mr. Dean and the florid surroundings.  This spiritual aspect of Rumer Godden drew me in as well because I was comforted by the sheltered life that seemed to me to be one of religion’s main enticements.

I was attracted to the books for the same reasons that Godden was attracted to India. They brought me into a world that seemed more intoxicating than the world in which I lived. They influenced my writing style then as well. When I was in high school I began attending a novelists’ roundtable around the same time that I was reading Godden’s books. I sat in study hall, making notes for the novel that I was attempting to write. Scented Wings, as I called it, was focused almost exclusively on scent. The story was about a chef who falls in love with a perfume maker. When the scents of her cooking combine with the scents of his perfumes, they create a magic potion which changes the direction of their lives. The roundtable was composed of writers of all ages and backgrounds. During the first session I attended, Shauna Singh Baldwin was reading from her novel in progress What the Body Remembers.  I recall the scene she read as being full of sensuality. Satya, whose inability to bear children led her husband to take a new wife, watches Roop, the new wife, sleep. I vicariously felt her jealousy and the women’s sudden intimacy. The book also is set in an Indian landscape, but it doesn’t contain the forced beauty of Rumer Godden’s stories.

Peacock Spring begins in this way,

turrets of roses, long beds of more roses, all now in their second flush: borders of delphiniums and lupins, snapdragons, petunias, dianthus, stocks; English flowers, most of them unfamiliar to Ravi, though he knew pansies and, of course, knew the creepers that flowered over walls, summer house and pavilion – scarlet bunches of clerodendron, blue trumpets of morning glory and, everywhere, bougainvillaea cream, pink, magenta and crimson.

In high school, the lushness of this world drew me away from the brown vinyl of bus seats, the sea green trays of the lunch room, and the cracked mats on which we did stretching exercises.  I am just as in need of escape now, but I am no longer hypnotized by this fanciful world as I once was.  It is a world of lost reading habits.

Fated Love: The Work of Valerian Pidmohylny


I first read early twentieth-century Ukrainian writer Valerian Pidmohylny during a sweltering summer at Harvard Summer School. It was my first time away from home and I could relate to the protagonist Stepan who finds himself in a city full of literary opportunity and the temptations of love. In Cambridge, I discovered Ukrainian literature and though I didn’t fall in love, I developed plenty of crushes.

More than ten years later, when I had to create a writing sample for a Comparative Literature PhD application, Pidmohylny came to mind because I remembered fondly the literary milieu of his work. This time when I began reading Pidmohylny, I found myself growing melancholy. Maybe I connected too closely with the protagonists, Stepan and Slavenko. Or, maybe I related to the distant women drawn by Pidmohylny’s pen who have their own ideals when it comes to love.

In The City, the first book I picked up again, Stepan goes to Kyiv to study, as I came to New York to do the MFA at Columbia in writing fiction. After the initial bumps in the road, like having to spend his first night in barn as I spent my first couple nights in the servant’s quarters of a rent-controlled New York apartment, he finds himself drawn away from practical pursuits. He is distracted by writing and women.

Stepan has many delusions about love. He asks Zoska to marry him and proclaims it is fate after he finds out that she is the one who threw him a flower after he read his first short story before an audience. It dawned on me that I too have let myself be propelled by fate. I was enticed by literary readings and concerts. One night, in a crowded bar where one of my favorite bands was filming a video, while Elijah Wood stood in the corner, a man took my hand and we started to see each other. When we later spoke about going to an Andy Warhol theme party, we passed a banana costume hooked on a fence. He climbed the fence to retrieve the costume so that we could take it with us. Even when we didn’t make plans, he’d appear in unexpected places: in the backseat of a friend’s car and at a party snapping my picture for web site for which he had just started freelancing.

After Stepan’s proposal, he reconsiders marriage: “He felt the lazy sleep of two together in bed, from then on regular sparks of passion that become banal in the end, like tea or dinner, the familiarity with a stranger’s soul that wouldn’t have any secrets any longer, the constant accessibility to a body stifling desire, the fatigue of inevitable arguments when the depth of the difference between two beings is revealed, and then most of all, the making up – the weak submission before fate.” So, he avoids Zoska and when he finally goes to see her, he learns that she has committed suicide. Instead of considering that he was the cause of her sadness, he wonders if she has left him a letter. Strangely he feels himself invincible, that if he poisons himself or is hit by a tram, that he won’t die.

While reading this scene a second time, I commiserated with Zoska. After my first reading, I felt she was merely a flippant beauty. My friend, the man I met at the bar, disappeared without explanation and I fixated on his absence as I imagine Zoska must have fixated on Stepan’s. I imagined myself crawling inside his body so that I could be close to him forever. I held his heart in my hand.

At times, Stepan sits down at his desk and words pour out of him, and at other times he struggles with a vast emptiness inside of him. These vacillations in productivity are based on his experiences with love. It is when he is seeing his first love that he writes his first story. When he experiences disappointment with his writing, he has an affair with a woman twice his age. As I waited for my friend to contact me, I wrote a novel. I finished it before he reappeared in my life.

In a book of titled The Experience of Love, which includes essays about Pidmohylny, critic Olena Haleta writes, “Nadika, Musinka, Zoska, and Rita in The City appear as fragments, representing types rather than individuals; most of all they serve as depictions of the protagonist.” I now realize I only saw one side of my friend, the side related to myself. Ironically, when Stephan lets himself be enticed by a prostitute, the one person who doesn’t have hope that his love will transcend the physical, he longs to see her soul. She mutters, “He needs a soul! … For you my soul is beneath my skirt.”

The City was published in Ukraine in 1926 and has yet to be translated into English. A Little Touch of Drama was published serially in 1930 and was translated by George and Moira Luckyj in 1972. The Luckyj translation is available online (pdf) from the University of Toronto. A short story about a boy’s cruelty and remorse by Pidmohylny as well as a short biography are also available.

The characters of A Little Touch of Drama are equally distressed by their work and love, making them painful to visit in the text. Marta is surrounded by many suitors. She falls in love with only one, scientist Yuriy Slavenko who in the end makes a practical decision to marry someone else. Marta is left alone. Though the book revolves around Marta, Slavenko has more depth created by the control he exercises over his situation. He is the one who chooses who he will marry and Marta begins to feel ashamed about her love for him. “‘I, for sure, won’t live through this.’” Pidmohylny’s characters all arrive at this point of desperation.

Like Marta, I have often felt myself on the verge of not being able to survive. On Christmas morning, I was coming home from a house party with a boom box and frantic dancing that ended past dawn. I was wearing an evening gown, but had dark circles beneath my eyes. I was feeling post-celebration loneliness. The subway was quiet with the holiday. A man next to me offered me one of his headphones. My favorite band from the bar played. “I know this band,” I said. “I had a feeling,” he said. I would see him at the show we were both going to a few days later. But I went to the show, made the mistake of not leaving my sweater in coat check, was suffocated by the crowd, and ended up at the bar drinking an overpriced beer. I waited for fate. I expected a hand on my shoulder, a soft voice that would change the direction of my life. Instead I left the show alone.

Slavenko says to his love Marta “’Yes, I love you. I love you blindly and unconditionally. But sometimes I hate you too. When I come home after seeing you I often sit at the table and hate you with all my heart and mind. If someone told me that you’d been killed, I’d cry with joy.” Like Stepan, Slavenko is conflicted when his love for Marta interrupts his research. The time Slavenko and Marta spend together is slowly eclipsed by Slavenko’s work as he endeavors to invent a synthetic protein that will do away with hunger. His desire to do away with hunger is parallel to his desire to rid himself of the need for love. He considers his love for Marta a catastrophe, a wound capable of destroying him.

Like Slavenko, I have considered stifling love in favor of practicality. I wonder if I should concentrate on going to bed early enough to make it more unlikely that my eyes will droop in front of the computer screen and on quiet intellectual pursuits. Instead, I find convinced again that there is someone I can’t live without.

Decades after their creation, Pidmohylny’s characters remain poignant. It is with difficulty that I allow them to inhabit my life and it is with even greater difficulty that I stop myself from inhabiting their lives. It is possible that I’ve gotten exactly what Pidmohylny intended from these books. After all, doesn’t a writer strive to make a book resonate with the reader?