‘Tomboyland’: Featured Nonfiction from Melissa Faliveno

In today’s edition of featured nonfiction—curated by our own Carolyn Quimby—we present an excerpt from Melissa Faliveno’s Tomboyland, out now from TOPPLE Books.
The debut essay collection from the former senior editor of Poets & Writers earned praise from the likes of Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and Booklist, which described the book as “a full-dress portrait of a writer whom most readers will be intrigued to know.”
And in our most recent book preview, Quimby wrote:

BDSM. Gun culture. Gender identity. Motherhood (and non-motherhood). Tornadoes. Girlhood. These are just some of the topics that Faliveno explores in her wide-ranging, triumphant debut essay collection. With tenderness and honesty, Faliveno explores boundaries, intersections, and the overall blurriness of life. Melissa Febos says the book is “a gorgeously complex ode to the Midwest that is destined to be passed urgently from hand to hand, an anthem sung by all the misfits in those vast places who have not yet seen themselves written.” And I couldn’t agree more.

The summer after my senior year, I was invited to train at the home of the best softball coach in the state. My coach had arranged the visit, and we drove there together on a Saturday morning in June. The best coach in the state lived about an hour north of my hometown, in another small town just like it, where sports, and especially girls’ softball, carried a long and storied tradition. The coach lived out in the country and had built his own ball field and batting cage in his backyard in a clearing among a dense circle of tall pine trees. He invited only a few girls to train privately with him there.
In the fall, I was going to play softball at the University of Wisconsin, the top program in the state and one of the best in the country. This was the plan. I had interest from other schools, smaller programs in the state and across the Midwest, but I was holding out for UW. After national recruits were made, a handful of girls from throughout Wisconsin were formally invited to try out as walk-on freshmen. I was one of them. Only two or three players would get a spot.
In the backyard of the best coach in the state, I took swings. Cuts, they called them. The two men watched me from behind. I was calm in the cage, my fingers wrapped loosely around the black-tape grip of the bat. I dug my feet into the ground, pivoting into the pitch, finding the sweet spot, and connecting with the ball. I watched it fly up and away, then get swallowed in the black netting of the cage.
I felt their eyes on me. No matter how focused on the task at hand, I was always aware of my body, hoping my coach was watching. That he noticed the muscles in my arms as they twitched and flexed, my hips as they rotated left—as they drove forward, hard and quick, into the swing.
Each time I connected, the two men said, Atta girl. Or That’s it. Or There it is. Each time I missed, they said, You got this, kid. You got this. Or Follow through. Or Eyes on the ball, babe, eyes on the ball. On the infield, at shortstop, I crouched low, my glove just above the dirt. The best coach in the state stood at home plate with a five-gallon bucket of balls and a bat. He drove each ball up the middle, down the pipe, shot line drives at chest height. I stopped them all, scooping the balls from the dirt and firing them to first, where my coach stood to catch them. I launched each ball directly into the pocket of his glove with a loud snap that echoed through the trees around us.
“Thatta girl,” he shouted with each snap, grinning with pride, and I radiated with joy.
When they sent me to center field, the two men took turns taking hits from home plate. Bucket after bucket of balls, their big bodies grunting and sweating as they swung. I sprinted. I dove. I worked harder than I ever had. I caught every ball. I pushed my body to perform each task at the highest possible level. I was the strongest and the fastest and the best I’d ever been. From home plate, a hundred feet away, the men watched me. They shouted and yelled and cheered, their big deep voices like shots of adrenaline, filling up my throat and chest, keeping my body going.
Nothing about that day seemed strange to me then. I’m sure nothing about it seemed strange to my parents or my teammates or anyone else in the community. There’s nothing strange at all, particularly in a small town, about girl athletes and the men who coach them. It’s simply a way of life. I was simply an athlete, training with two coaches out in the country. I was a teenage girl, performing for two adult men in a circle of trees. I was a girl who would have done anything for their approval, to make them believe I was good. So that I might believe it too.
Afterward, soaked in sweat and slick with sand, my shirt and shorts stuck to my skin, my body hot from the high summer sun, I walked in from the field toward the men standing at home plate. The best coach in the state nodded and smiled.
“You’ll make it if you want it,” he said.

I didn’t make it. On the day of tryouts, a cool September morning on the University of Wisconsin field—where I’d arrived at sunrise, the huge silent beauty of the stadium like a chapel—I choked. The semester had yet to begin, but I’d moved into the dorms by then, continuing my training on campus—running the bike paths at dawn, sprinting up stadium stairs, lifting weights during the day, and hitting the cages at night. I was at the top of my game. But that morning, I missed balls in the outfield; I fumbled grounders in the dirt. At batting practice, I don’t remember if I hit a single ball. I ran the bases as hard as I could, but my legs felt like rubber, disconnected from my body. I didn’t make the cut. I still had an offer from a reputable Division III school a few hours north, but I turned it down. It was either the best or it was nothing at all.
For a long time, the words of the best high school coach in the state would haunt me: You’ll make it if you want it. I thought I had wanted nothing else. I couldn’t understand what could have possibly happened. I couldn’t believe what I had lost and couldn’t imagine my life without it. It took me years to understand that maybe, in the end, I hadn’t wanted it after all. So much of what I did—the training, the lifting, the practicing—had been about my coach. Maybe, I started to wonder, it had all been about him, more than it had ever been about the sport. This was the story I began to tell myself, and the one I eventually believed. At some point along the way, I forgot that I had once loved the game.
Excerpt from: Tomboyland. Copyright © 2020 by Melissa Faliveno. Published in August by TOPPLE Books.
Bonus Link:—Freedom in Telling the Truth: Melissa Faliveno Interviews Adrienne Brodeur

Panel Mania: ‘Paying the Land’

In his new book, Paying the Land, acclaimed comics journalist Joe Sacco pays a visit to the Dene and other Indigenous people in their vast homelands in Canada’s Northwest Territories near the arctic circle.

Sacco is there to learn about the history of Canada’s First Nation peoples and their tragic conflict with the Canadian government—and to understand their new struggle with mining, oil, and fracking companies looking to exploit their traditional lands.

In this 12-page excerpt Sacco talks with Chief Dolphus Jumbo and indigenous activists about the terrible impact of Canada’s residential schools and the push-pull of traditional and modern life.

Paying the Land by is out now from Metropolitan Books.

Bonus Links:
Joe Sacco Grapples with Human Nature: The Millions Interview

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Panel Mania: ‘Spellbound’

At first, Bishakh Som’s Spellbound: A Graphic Memoir is the story of a leap of faith: Som quits her job as an architect to work full time on a graphic novel.

The book then relays her life story as she grows up in New York City, the child of immigrants from India, and moves through her years as an alienated college student and later, a comics artist who has to figure out how to make art and pay the bills.

But the book is also a memoir of identity by a trans artist, with episodes from Som’s life reimagined as lived out by her cisgender quasi-avatar Anjali.

In this 10-page excerpt we meet Som/Anjali just as she’s about to quit her job. Spellbound: A Graphic Memoir by Bishakh Som will be published by Street Noise Books in August.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

‘Want’: Featured Fiction from Lynn Steger Strong

In today’s edition of featured fiction—curated by our own Carolyn Quimby—we present an excerpt from Lynn Steger Strong’s novel Want.

Following on the heels of Hold Still, the novel won praise from Kirkus, which called it “a wise, unflinching, and compelling novel about womanhood,” and Vulture, which hailed it as “a defining novel of our age of left-behind families.”

It was hot already, wet and sticky—college; I was nine-teen; she was twenty; she’d driven from her school three hours away to spend the summer with me—and she shaved my head out on the roof of the row house I shared with two other girls and laughed as large chunks of hair fell down to the porch; the buzz of her hands on my neck was the closest that I’d come to joy in years. For weeks, we’d talked about it, a joke I made that she latched onto. I liked the thrill she seemed to get at the prospect: a sort of recklessness I’d receded from—mostly, then, I was locked up in my attic room—just as hers was amping up.

I didn’t think I’d care what I looked like after. I had images of waiflike women with large features staring back at me from pictures, pictures that I’d found online when we first discussed shaving my head. I must have cared if I searched this. I must have been invested in how it’d turn out in the end. These women were all barefaced as well as bareheaded: Sinéad O’Connor, cancer victims, Yael Stone. All of them wide-eyed toward the camera. All of them gaunt. Their features threatened from their faces, big and unprotected, unapologetic; it was the viewer, though, who seemed to need protecting then.

That my features were too small and my face already too wide and blunt was not something I’d considered. That I’d gained weight and what was, would always be, too soft had gotten softer was something I tried not to think about. But then the hair had fallen to the porch and we were sweeping it into the trash and there was nothing to be done but to wear skullcaps in the wet summer heat and try to forget it was possible that I was making passers-by afraid.

I didn’t mind because she loved me like that. She loved me most when, at night, she’d rub my back as I cried about whatever small thing made me cry that day and she could tell me my crying was allowed and important, that she’d be there no matter what. She reached her hands over the nubs of my head, strong and sure and doting, she talked and talked, until I fell asleep.

Men sought her out, always. I was an obstacle they had to overcome. They pretended to care about what I was reading so she would see that they were kind and thoughtful. They would half listen to the things I said as they turned their chairs closer to her. We both brought books to the same bar every night—it was the summer I read all of Woolf and Faulkner—the presence of the absence, circling, circling but not ever touching, knowing that there was no such thing as saying just exactly what one wanted, no such thing as connecting wholly with another human, but still trying anyway. She sometimes picked up whatever I had finished so we could talk about them afterward. The bar was Irish. They served colcannon and champ, boxty, boiled bacon and cabbage, and we’d split a big, hot meal after not eating the whole day. It was half old men, locals, and half undergrads who wanted to declare themselves as different from the kids who went to the fancy burger place or the oyster bar down the street.

I read and she held the books close to her, unopened, flirting with the bartender or pretending not to notice when men looked. I nodded and sometimes let myself pretend these men were interested in my answers to their questions. When they circled their chairs to face only her, I went back to my book. It was the contrast that never failed to shock me. We felt so much aligned during the day, at home, alone, walking down the street. We were the same age, from the same place, equally unrelenting, depressive, bookish. But the shape of her face, the way clothes hung on her body, her perfect skin, the largeness of her eyes: we were such completely separate things.

She came home with me almost always. When we made fun of these men later, the experience of their desperate want felt shared. It was mine insofar as I had gotten what they wanted. One of them called me a dyke bitch when I asked her if we could please go home after he offered to pay for her fifth beer. This one was attractive. Smart. It was 2:00 am. I’d read an entire novel in the time we’d been there. Probably she would have slept with him if I’d not made my face so sad when I’d asked if we could leave. If she’d not also heard what he’d said.

During the day, I could forget about this. My roommates both went back to their childhood homes and we had the whole place to ourselves for the last month. We’d get up early and walk over the MIT bridge into Boston. We wore T-shirts and sports bras, cotton shorts and flip-flops, just like we’d done all those years at home. There was a tree outside the house where I lived and we would pick mulberries to eat from our hands and pockets on our walks. We’d stop in Central Square for coffee. She’d get chocolate cake but never finish it. I’d get a quiche and then she’d pass me what was left of her cake. We drank cup after cup of coffee. Still there was the talking. Talking, talking. About the books that we were reading, about what we wanted, needed, thought then that we couldn’t live without. I imagine now that it sounded and was shaped like what lots of young girls say they want and need when they’re nineteen and twenty. She wanted always to be loved and wanted. I wanted to be anything but whatever I was then. We loitered on the basement floors of used bookstores when it got too hot and we were tired. We got ice cream on Newbury Street and watched the tourists yelling, pointing in the duck boats on the Charles. We went to see movies; sometimes we snuck piles of food into our bags and stayed for hours, leaving one theater and sneaking into another. We’d see three or four films in six hours, stumbling out bleary and exhausted, the whole day having passed. I’d forget then, on the best days, that we were separate. Our words and wants and limbs would overlap. A man came up to our table at the coffee shop and dropped her a note, a pencil-sketched picture of her, I just couldn’t stop looking, he wrote at the bottom, already gone. Three of the baristas asked her out. I’d gained weight, stopped running for long stretches of time, and none of my shorts fit. My head was still bare and sometimes people gawked, but mostly I could disappear inside reading and talking. I bought more cotton shorts and wore old, large sweat shirts with the sleeves rolled up.

I was paying for her. My parents paid. She was staying in my attic apartment until she found a place, except she never looked. She was meant to get a job but never did. We put our whole lives on the card I had, had always had, for living. She alluded sometimes to feeling bad about this, but I demurred and didn’t let her talk too much about it. I didn’t want to spend long stretches of time without her. The rent had to be paid regardless and she ate so little. At night, her drinks were always bought by men.

One night, we went out to dinner. I wore a green cotton strapless dress I’d had since high school that had seemed to fit in the dark apartment but did not. She wore a low-cut black silk tank and perfect pants. The busboy kept coming over to refill our waters. Even when I stopped drinking mine, to get him to stop, he found reasons, changing out our silverware, refolding her napkin when it fell off her lap. He was boorishly attractive, younger than us, broad-shouldered, dark hair, shockingly blue eyes. She pretended not to notice through the first course. But we spent every day together, every night and morning. We talked about the same things over and over. I saw her turn her body toward him. She let him look at her. When he finally spoke, his accent was South Boston born and bred. You want more bread?

He left her a note, scratchy handwriting, a pen borrowed from a waiter; he’d written his number and the word “drink” with a question mark. I was still hoping we could laugh about this later. I was still thinking if I ignored him she would too. It’ll be fun, she said. We’ll go together. I didn’t want to. The energy was different between them than with most of the others. I could feel her wanting him to look at her, instead of acquiescing to it; I already understood I wouldn’t be able to convince her not to go. I wanted to scream and cry and wrap both of us inside the tablecloth until we were home and no one could touch us with their eyes or food or drinks or pens or hands. I want to go home, I said. Fine, she said. Her voice was hard.

I left and she didn’t. He dropped her off at my apartment the next day before noon. For weeks, she disappeared for days to be with him. I always knew where she was at night if she wasn’t across from me in bed.

She made fun of him in front of me. His sheets, she said. Her face scrunched up. I’m not sure they’ve ever been washed.

She was affecting this not caring. She tried to convince me I still mattered most of all. He’d dropped out of high school, lived with a cousin in South Boston, no real plans. She said when he fucked her he got angry just before he came and she liked the way his ass felt in her hands, taut and small compared to the rest of him. Twice, she showed me bruises he’d left across her body. I ran my hands slowly over them, one on the shoulder, another just below her chin, her skin so white and poreless, even in summer, the purple splotches popping, angry, with smaller patches of brown and blue. Later, I reached slowly up into myself with that same hand and let myself remember her pulse thrumming; I thought about their fucking, imagined the feel of that hard, angry ass overtop of me.

He stopped returning her calls after a month. She pretended she didn’t care. Then she told me she thought she might be pregnant. She refused to take a test but left a message on his phone. I went to the CVS and bought the test for her, but she refused to take it. Instead, she curled up next to me in my bed and cried, her phone clutched to her. When he still hadn’t called her back a week later and she was still calling, warning, saying she’d take care of it herself except she didn’t have the money now (I knew this wasn’t true and had also offered to put an abortion on my parents’ credit card) I found a used tampon in the bathroom under two sheets of paper from the day’s news. We were the only people in the house.

Excerpted from Want by Lynn Steger Strong. Published by Henry Holt and Company, July 7th 2020. Copyright © 2020 by Lynn Steger Strong. All rights reserved. 

Bonus Links from Our Archive:
Shells: Picking Apart Pain and Womanhood
On Sheila Heti and (Not) Motherhood
The Mourners

Panel Mania: ‘Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics’

There’s a reason why Jack Kirby, co-creator of such iconic comics characters as the Fantastic Four, Black Panther, and Captain America, is called the “King of Comics.” One of the great innovators in the history of American comics, Kirby (1917-1994) is arguably the greatest superhero comic book artist of all time.

In the new graphic biography, Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics, comics artist and biographer Tom Scioli pays tribute to Kirby in a vividly illustrated and comprehensively researched examination of Kirby’s life and career, from his rough-and-tumble childhood on the Lower East Side of New York to his military service during World War II to the transformative comics he created for Marvel and later for DC.

In this 11-page excerpt, Scioli depicts Kirby’s early life on the Lower East Side and his early interest in becoming a cartoonist and comic book artist.

Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics by Tom Scioli will be published in July by Ten Speed Press.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Panel Mania: ‘Stuck Rubber Baby’

Originally published in 1995 by DC, the late Howard Cruse’s Stuck Rubber Baby is a pioneering graphic novel that explores politics, race, sex, and identity in the African-American and LGBTQ communities in the Jim Crow south.

In July, First Second Books will publish a new edition to mark the book’s 25th anniversary featuring rare phots, archival material, and an introduction by Alison Bechdel. Set in the fictional town of Clayfield, a stand-in for Birmingham, Ala., where Cruse went to college, Stuck Rubber Baby is the story of Toland Polk, a closeted young white gay man struggling to understand his sexuality in a town that is as viciously homophobic as it is brutally racist.

The book is partially based on Cruse’s experiences growing up in the 1950s and ’60s south, and is notable for its portrayal of Polk’s close relationships with members of the black community—queer and straight—during some of the most dangerous years of the Civil Rights Movement.

In this nine-page excerpt, Polk and his friends plan a visit to the Melody Motel, a secret meeting point for socializing (and political organizing) among local integrationist whites and blacks, as well as local straight and queer communities.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

‘Between Everything and Nothing’: Featured Nonfiction from Joe Meno

In today’s installment of featured nonfiction—curated by none other than our own Carolyn Quimby—we present an excerpt from Joe Meno’s Between Everything and Nothing: The Journey of Seidu Mohammed and Razak Iyal and the Quest for Asylum.

The book, which follows two Ghanaian refugees, 24-year-old Seidu Mohammed and 32-year-old Razak Iyal, in their quest for political asylum, received a starred review from Kirkus, which called the book and “Ambitious exposé of the troubled immigration system” and “A well-paced and engaging account, highly relevant…”

Month after month went by at the Eloy detention facility with Razak wondering when he would finally face the immigration judge and be freed. After the attempt on his life by thugs hired by a corrupt member of parliament and his half-siblings, he had fled Ghana for Brazil, had crossed border after border on foot and by bus, and survived being robbed of his birth certificate, passport, and other documents. But nothing prepared him for this endless waiting.

Finally, after eight months of detention, Razak stood at his third hearing before the same judge who, having reviewed Razak’s documents, stated he needed to see evidence of the threats against Razak’s life before he was able to make a ruling. “Please prepare any and all evidence that you have,” the judge ordered. 

Razak felt despondent and decided to speak directly to the judge in English. “I can’t make long-distance calls back home. The calling cards only give you two minutes. I can’t use the internet. What am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to get evidence?” 

“I understand your concerns but I need proof that what you claim in these documents actually happened. If you get me the proof, then we can figure out how to proceed. You have one month to show me some kind of evidence.” 

After the hearing, Razak tried to contact the immigration lawyer he had spoken with but got no response. He spoke with other detainees; all of them were facing the same impossibility. None of them had any answer on how to attain evidence while being held inside a detainment facility. 

Because there was no newspaper article or specific police report documenting Razak’s assault, because he could not materialize demonstrable proof of the corruption of the local police and the involvement of the member of parliament in his family’s inheritance of land, he had no way to proceed. If he had been given access to the internet, there would have been a trove of newspaper articles about Parliament Member Mustapha’s predilection for corruption, and criticism by members of his own political party.

If he had been allowed long-distance phone calls back to Africa, he could have gathered testimonies from witnesses—his mother and aunt and fiancee Cynthia or the local Islamic elders. He could have asked for their help in gathering documentation from Accra, such as his hospital records.

But without any basic privileges and lacking the support of an attorney, Razak could see no way to supply evidence for his claim.

By then he had only two weeks left before meeting with the judge again. He called his uncle Malik in New York and explained the situation.

“Would you be willing to write a letter on my behalf?”

As it turned out, Malik had gone back to Ghana in 2014 and spent three weeks there. During that time Malik learned what had occurred between Razak and his half-siblings.

His uncle agreed to write a letter explaining the complications of Razak’s case, arguing that if Razak was sent back to Ghana his life would be in danger. He then had it notarized and mailed it on to Razak in Arizona. Razak had the letter sent to the judge. In the meantime, Razak’s uncle had contacted Razak’s mother, who wrote a letter of her own, describing what happened, which was sent to the judge as well.

During his fifth and final hearing on August 1, 2014, nearly one year after arriving in the United States, Razak stood before the immigration judge and was deeply disturbed to hear his asylum had been denied. 

“You have failed to produce any necessary evidence.”

“But my uncle sent a letter explaining everything.”

“All you’d been able to show are letters from your relatives. We need actual evidence to decide your case. I’m sorry, but there’s just not enough evidence to continue. You don’t have an attorney, so we’re going to have to deny your case.”

One year after presenting himself at the border, after one year of being incarcerated, the judge formally denied Razak’s asylum plea. Razak was furious.

“How can you keep me here for one year and then deny my case? You want to send me back home? Why didn’t you send me back home from the beginning? You let me waste my life here for one year!”

The judge slowly removed his glasses and looked over at him. “Would you like to appeal my decision?”

“How long does the appeal take?”

“It’s nine months before a decision is reached. But you’d have to stay here during that time.”

Razak did not need to think about it for a single second. “No.”

“If you say no, then you will be deported back to Ghana. The deportation order will be final.”

Razak lowered his head and with a deep sense of grief and frustration, said, “I understand.”

The judge put his glasses back on and said, “We will send all the necessary documents on to your deportation officer.”

Razak was led back to his unit, where the walls themselves seem to crumble beneath the wave of anger he was feeling.

One week later, Razak’s asylum officer appeared with a number of documents for him to sign. Razak looked over the paperwork and said, “I’m not going to sign anything.”

“If you don’t sign, they’re going to keep you here a long time. You better sign it, then we can go from there.” 

“If I don’t sign it, how long will I be here?”

“I don’t know. A long time.”

Razak eventually conceded and signed the papers, accepting the ruling of the immigration judge, giving up his right for appeal. His bond was also immediately canceled.

“We’re going to send all of these documents to the Ghanaian consulate in D.C. It’ll take a few weeks. We’ll see what the consulate says.”

One month later, at the beginning of September 2014, Razak was called in by ICE officers for an interview with his consulate on the phone. On the telephone, a woman at the embassy asked Razak several questions first in English, then in Twi, an Akan dialect spoken in Ghana.

How are they treating you over there?

I’m doing okay.

Did you get an attorney?

No.

What did you have when you came into the United States? Your birth certificate? Your passport? Your ID from Ghana?

No, all of that was stolen from me in Mexico.

What do you have to prove you’re from Ghana?

I was born in Rich hospital in Accra.

Anybody can say that.

I grew up in Ghana, I went to school at Kanda Estate.

Okay, I can check on that. You’ll hear from us. Can I please talk to the officer?

Razak handed the phone back to the ICE officer and listened carefully to the officer’s responses. The Ghanaian embassy needed to verify Razak’s identity in order to issue travel documents. Without the travel documents, the U.S. could not deport him. But Razak had no faith in either institution. From the officer’s expressions, there was no way to know how much longer he would be detained.

By then something had shifted. Razak’s frustration at having lost his asylum case turned to a disquieting sense of disbelief. Although his plea had been denied months before, he was still unable to be released. His dream of staying in the U.S. was now superseded by the much more pressing reality of needing to escape the detention facility, of returning to some version of life, even if it meant facing a grave, mortal threat from his siblings and the unfair political system back home.

But there was no end in sight, no sign of reprieve, only more days, pacing the halls at Eloy.

One day Razak spoke with his asylum officer who—also frustrated by the lack of response from the Ghanaian embassy in Washington D.C.—asked Razak to write a letter to the Ghanian consulates in D.C., New York City, and Houston, in order to verify his identity so that he could be released. Razak wrote three letters, knowing that by doing so, he would be deported and returned to a corrupt political system and the certain danger he had already faced back home. 

In his cell, Razak came to the conclusion that he let everyone down, his fiancée, his mother, his family, that he had been removed from them for so long. He had been unable to start a new life in a new country, could not find a way to support them, or even hear their voice. It would be better to face whatever he had too face in Ghana than to go on, separated from them, detained at Eloy for another year, another month, another day.

One of his back teeth began to hurt a few weeks later. A medical staffer inspected Razak’s tooth and decided it would have to be pulled. In order to receive proper dental care, he would have to be sent out of the detention facility to a county hospital nearby.

In the morning an ICE officer called his name and brought him to a separate room, where they instructed him to put on an orange jumpsuit—the uniform convicted criminals wore in the facility.

“Why do I have to put this on?”

“We’re taking you out of the prison.”

“But I already have my green uniform.”

“Listen, I’m just doing my job. Just do what I ask you to do.”

“I’m not going to wear that.”

“If you don’t put it on, you’re not going to the hospital.”

Razak stared at the jumpsuit again and said, “Then I’m not going.” The ICE officer nodded grimly and then brought Razak back to his unit.

Later that same day, another ICE officer found Razak and told him the van had arrived to take him to the medical facility.

“The van is here. You need to put on that uniform.”

“Why are you making me wear that uniform? Why do you want people to look at me like I’m some kind of criminal?”

“No, you’re going right to the hospital. You’re not walking around the city.”

The pain in his tooth was unrelenting. He looked at the uniform and, against his better judgment, put it on. Once he was dressed, the officers bound him in chains, handcuffing his wrists to his waist and putting manacles on his ankles. It was worse than he had imagined. It took three officers to lead Razak into the modest county hospital. Two of the officers carried rifles. Razak entered the waiting room, having difficulty walking with the chains about his ankles. Everyone looked up and began to gawk—adults, children, the elderly—while some moved away, a look of pure terror crossing their face. Deeply ashamed, Razak lowered his head, afraid to make eye contact with anyone.

In the dentist’s examination room, Razak was led to a reclining seat. The officers waited uncomfortably in chairs like exhausted parents. Finally the dentist appeared, looked at Razak, and asked, “Who are you?”

“I’m from Ghana. I’m here for asylum.”

“And how are you finding our country?”

Razak frowned and the officers gave the dentist a look of discouragement. Even here, in this small, unseen place, in this most common and mundane of human moments, he would not be allowed to be treated like a person, to engage in a basic, civil conversation. The dentist began his examination and eventually concurred that Razak’s tooth would need to be removed.

The dentist turned to one of the officers and asked, “I need to remove this man’s tooth. Can you unlock his handcuffs please?”

The officer glanced at his partner and then shook his head. “I’m sorry. That’s against protocol.”

“Really?” the dentist asked.

“I’m sorry,” the officer responded. 

Razak shook his head.

The tooth would have to come out with Razak bound in the chair like a victim of some outdated torture.

Later, after the procedure, Razak asked to use the bathroom. One of the ICE officers escorted him to the lavatory.

One day at the library, Razak met another asylum seeker who asked how long he had been detained.

“For more than a year and a half.”

“You’re here for asylum?”

“Yes.”

The other man studied him for a moment and said, “You know, there’s an organization called the Florence Project. They help refugees get released.”

“How can I talk to them?”

“I have a number and address. I can give them to you.”

The man opened his bag and gave the phone number and an address with a name. Benjamin Harville. “Write to Benjamin or call him. Here.” Reaching into his bag again, the other man produced a stamp—which at the moment seemed like a small, magical thing—and handed it to Razak.

Razak wrote furiously, explaining his case and how he had been in detention for more than a year. He sent it to the Florence Project, a not-for-profit agency that provided legal aid and social services for detained migrants throughout Arizona. After a week, he received a response saying someone from the organization was planning to come to visit him on December 15, 2014.

Benjamin Harville, a tall young man in his early thirties who was a staff attorney for the Florence Project, arrived with a legal assistant and asked to look over Razak’s documents. Benjamin went through his asylum application, looked over his other paperwork, and then asked, “Do you know that they’ve violated your rights?”

“No.”

“The Department of Homeland Security has violated your rights.”

“How did they do that?”

“If you lose your asylum case, they have three months to coordinate with your embassy to deport you. If they are unable to produce the necessary documents, they have another three months to comply or they have to release you. But they’re still keeping you here.”

Razak sat at the table, stunned. He felt a jolt of shock and relief overcome him. 

“You know what, Razak? We’re going to write a letter to the District Court of Arizona. We’re going to send a copy to you. We’re going to send one to the warden, and we’re going to send a copy to your deportation officer. These people are violating your rights. Do you understand?”

Razak nodded.

“It might take a week or two, but we’re going to file these documents and send it to you.”

“No problem. I can wait.”

“Usually you have to pay to submit these documents to the court, but we’re going to pay it for you. We’ll send you the receipt that it’s been paid.”

One year and nine months after first being detained at Eloy, Razak received a receipt saying the letter had been received by the District Court of Arizona, along with a copy of the petition. The petition challenged Jon Gurule, the warden of the Eloy facility, for Razak’s immediate release based on the U.S. Supreme Court case Zadvydas v. Davis, 533 U.S. 678 (2001), which successfully argued that aliens with a final order of removal could not be detained beyond a 180-day period unless the alien’s removal was significantly likely to occur in the foreseeable future.

One week after that, the court replied, asking Razak’s asylum officer why he was still being detained, and giving ICE twenty days to comply with his release.

The asylum officer approached Razak in his cell, asking, “What are you trying to do? Are you trying to mess with my job?”

“Why are you keeping me here?”

“You should have talked to me before you went to them,” the officer complained.

“Why do I have to talk to you? I did everything you asked me to do. Now I’m doing everything I can to get out of here.”

The warden of Eloy invited Razak into his office. Uneasily, Razak he sat down across from the desk as the warden announced, “The court has already issued its response, so you have to be patient. They’re working to get you released.”

“I want to go back. I’d rather go back to Ghana then be here any longer.”

Days later Razak found out that Fred, who was also from Ghana and who had also lost his asylum plea, had written to the District Court of Arizona and had successfully petitioned for his release. 

A few weeks later, Razak was sitting in the common room watching the news when a correction officer named Peterson told him he had a visitor. 

“It’s someone from USCIS. Good luck.”

“Thank you.”

Razak was led to a small conference room and immediately saw a different asylum officer. A tall African American man sat across from him and smiled. “Razak. You’re going to be released.”

“Released to where? Am I being sent back home or somewhere else?”

“You’re going to New York.”

Tears welled up in Razak’s eyes and creased his cheeks.

“I’m sorry. I know you’ve been here a long time, but it was part of the process.”

Razak was too stunned to speak.

“You know where I’m from?” the officer asked. “I’m from New York. I see your uncle’s address here. He’s close to Yankee Stadium. That’s where I grew up. When you get there, there’s a lot of bad guys, troublemakers, make sure you don’t get mixed up with them.”

On the way back to the unit, a female correctional officer who worked near the visitation area stopped him to say, “I know you’re a good guy. You’ve never gotten in trouble with anybody. They kept you here a long time. I’m so sorry for that.”

Razak stopped, nodded, then kept walking.

Although he had lost his asylum plea, the Department of Homeland Security was legally obligated to release Razak while the U.S. government continued its deportation proceedings. It was a complicated victory, knowing he would be freed from Eloy but could be sent back to Ghana at any moment. 

Immigration officers contacted Razak’s uncle in New York, asking if he would provide money for a bus ticket across the country. Malik had no idea his nephew was still in the United States: he thought he had already been deported.

“Can I talk to him, please?” his uncle asked the immigration officer.

Razak took the phone and listened.

“Razak, is that really you? I thought they had deported you. I haven’t heard from you. Is it really you?”

“It’s me. They released me today. They want to know if you’d be willing to buy me a bus ticket to New York. I’m so sorry to call you like this.”

“Of course, don’t be sorry,” his uncle said. “Ask them what I need to do.”

The ICE officer helped Razak’s uncle send a wire through Western Union for the bus ticket.

Razak’s uncle also spoke with Razak’s friend from Ghana, Munil, who then contacted his fiancée Cynthia back in Accra and gave her the news.

On May 6, 2015, Razak was freed from the Eloy detention facility. Before his release, he signed an Order of Supervision, agreeing to report in person to the DHS/ICE field office in New York City. He also agreed that he would assist ICE in obtaining any necessary travel documents and that he would not leave New York for more than forty-eight hours without first contacting ICE. Once he had signed his release papers, once he was finally able to remove the khaki jumpsuit, he told himself he would not allow anyone to put him through anything like that again. No imprisonment, no shackles. Never.

It would be a two-and-a-half-day bus ride from Phoenix to New York. ICE officers returned Razak’s meager belongings to him, some clothes, his diary, and his portable Koran, but he had no other documents, nothing but his asylum applications and release papers. Officers brought Razak along with a few other men who had been released to the bus station. He took his seat in the middle of the bus and waited for the sound of the door closing. He could not believe he was finally free. A cold sense of disquiet set in. Once the bus pulled away, he stared out at the passing terrain, feeling as uncertain and as lost as ever.

Published June 2020 by Counterpoint Press. Copyright © 2020 Joe Meno. All rights reserved.

Panel Mania: ‘Weathering with You’

Acclaimed director Makoto Shinkai not only directed the Weathering with You anime released in 2019—he also wrote the novelization published in the U.S. and the forthcoming manga adaptation.
It’s the story of Hodaka, a teenage boy who runs away from his small island home to the big city of Tokyo during a time when it seems to never stop raining. In Tokyo he meets Hina, a young woman who appears to have a mysterious power to affect the weather—indeed he discovers she can stop the incessant rain and bring out the sun.
In this 10-page excerpt from the manga, Hodaka is onboard a ship heading to Tokyo when a storm begins to form ominously in the sky, taking a mythological shape before showering the ship with a powerful, drenching rain that nearly sweeps him overboard.
Weathering with You Vol.1 by Makoto Shinkai with art by Wataru Kobuta will be published by Kodansha in June. The excerpt is presented in a vertical scroll with the first few pages in color. Remember that manga reads from right to left on the page and within each panel.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Panel Mania: ‘Cuisine Chinoise’

A rising star in China, cartoonist Zao Dao makes her North American debut with Cuisine Chinoise: Tales of Food and Life, a delightful collection of food-themed short stories inspired by Chinese folklore and filled with monsters, demons, unusual heroes, and sumptuous dishes created with unlikely—and sometimes disgusting—magical ingredients.
Dao’s drawings offer great variety, alternating between lively comic caricatures, richly illustrated street scenes, and moody vignettes full of magic and fantasy.
In this 11-page excerpt from the story Hai Zi, a highly creative young chef—who is despondent because patrons have abandoned his restaurant’s unusual fare and because his father is gravely ill—is thrilled when two mysterious and hungry visitors arrive at his door.
Cuisine Chinoise: Tales of Food and Life will be published by Dark Horse in June.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

‘A Children’s Bible’: Featured Fiction from Lydia Millet

In our latest edition of featured fiction—curated by our own Carolyn Quimby—we’re excited to present an excerpt from A Children’s Bible by Pulitzer Prize finalist Lydia Millet, out today from Norton.

Kirkus called the novel—about a group of friends and their reunion gone wrong at a summer house—”A bleak and righteously angry tale determined to challenge our rationalizations about climate change.” And The New York Times Book Review hailed the title, saying, “This superb novel begins as a generational comedy…and turns steadily darker, as climate collapse and societal breakdown encroach. But Millet’s light touch never falters; in this time of great upheaval, she implies, our foundational myths take on new meaning and hope.”

Days passed slowly. It was a season of no storms and little rain. By the calendar it wasn’t fall yet, but somehow it wasn’t summer anymore either. Summer had been another time, when we had a great house to go back to, a shining lake, and the blue ocean.

In the mornings we took care of the donkeys and goats and helped Mattie in the vegetable garden. We made lunch in rotation. As afternoon wore on, we washed dirty clothes in the cottage sink and hung them out to dry. We scrubbed ourselves down with cold water, shared toothbrushes until they fell apart, and used small dabs of toothpaste. Those of us with periods had to cut a single sponge into pieces. We boiled the pieces on the stove to sterilize them.

The angels refueled the generator with gas from the silo. They liked to patrol the woods. We took turns cooking dinner with Darla and the angel named John, who’d been a sous-​chef once. After dinner Sukey would take the baby to her mother’s grave and give her a bottle and rock her to sleep. She was building a cairn at the grave with rocks from the stream, a couple more every day.

We mostly kept the lights off in the cottage, to save power and maintain a low profile. A few nights Rafe made fires outside, but we rationed them for safety. We’d gather close around the fire while the angels tried to teach us their hippie songs.

Darla said singing was good for your health.

“It’s like smiling,” she said. “The more you do it, the more you want to!”

Juicy spat.

They taught us a famous, sad song that went “Hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again,” and a cheerful one called “Spirit in the Sky” that Jack liked because it talked about Jesus, his imaginary friend. The rest of us were OK with it because the angels said it was ironic. Written by a Jew from Massachusetts.

“Never been a sinner, I never sinned,” we sang, off-​key as the karaoke version played on our puck-​shaped speaker. “I got a friend in Jee-​sus.”

Sometimes we yelled it, almost defiantly: “Never been a sinner! I never sinned!”

A photo came by text, onto Rafe’s phone from David’s. A view of the library in the great house. Chairs and tables and sofas had been pushed to the sides of the room, against the tall bookshelves, and a row of mattresses had replaced them.

On the mattresses lay parents, and beside them David and Dee and Low. Zooming in, we could see thin red lines running between the arms of young and old. Graceful loops of tubing.

It reminded me of a news story I’d read, with photos, about a pharma­ceutical lab. In it were hundreds of horseshoe crabs whose blood was being harvested for medical testing. The machines siphoned off enough blood that the crabs didn’t die but lived to be harvested again and again.

The company called it blood farming.

Beside me, Jack stared at the image as I zoomed. In the back, small and blurry, was the fireplace, and above it a painting of hunters with their hounds.

He touched the tip of his finger to the screen, moved it along a red loop of tube from David to David’s mother. Tracing the swoops.

“He’s going back where he came from,” he said.

Jack and Shel were at a crucial moment in their “childhood journey,” according to Darla. The time away from school and other kids their age could be “inhibiting their social and educational development.”

She had an idea. “Our very own prairie school!” she cried, clapping her hands in delight. We cringed.

They could take classes: biology taught by Mattie, history taught by John, and poetry taught by her.

“The angels don’t have enough to do,” said Terry, when we conferred about it. “Could get antsy. Even destructive.”

“Idle hands do the devil’s work,” said Rafe.

So we said yes. They could “teach” the little boys, if they wanted. We thanked them for their interest.

Sometimes I’d sit in a parked car, motionless. I’d remember factories. I’d seen them onscreen in a hundred variations and always had the sense of them out there, churning, whirring, infinite moving pieces. Making the stuff we used.

Now I wondered if they were still busy, manufacturing. Or were shuttered and dark. Were other factories in other places doing the work they used to do? Or were certain components no longer made at all?

I let my eyes rest on a dashboard, its vinyl surfaces, the dust on the curves. I wondered what was behind the plastic and what parts of it were already obsolete.

My phone had ceased to interest me since the news started repeating, bringing a wash of grimness whenever I looked. I solved the problem by ignoring it.

The others abandoned theirs too—​days would pass between updates. Rafe and David texted a check-​in at night, just: OK? out. And OK back.

For a while that was it.

Before the storm we’d caught sight of the parents’ screens sometimes, snagged their devices when we needed a quick fix. Gotten flashes of TV through a doorway. But these days we mostly had what was in front of us, the cottage and barn and long grass in the fields. Long and short, tussocks and bare patches. Topography. We had the wood of the walls and fences, the metal of the parked cars with their near-​empty gas tanks.

We had the corners of buildings and the slope of the hills, the line of the treetops. The more time passed, the more any flat image began to seem odd and less than real. Uncanny delicate surfaces. Had we always had them?

We’d had so many pictures. Pictures just everywhere, every hour, minute, or second.

But now they were foreign. Now we saw everything in three dimensions.

From A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet (W.W. Norton, 2020). Copyright © 2020 by Lydia Millet. Published with permission of W.W. Norton. All rights reserved.

Bonus Links from Our Archive:
A Year in Reading 2014: Lydia Millet
A Year in Reading 2012: Lydia Millet
A Year in Reading 2007: Lydia Millet