‘Cairo Circles’: Featured Fiction from Doma Mahmoud

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In our latest edition of featured fiction, curated by our own Carolyn Quimby, we present an excerpt from Doma Mahmoud’s debut novel, Cairo Circles.

The book—which examines class and wealth in modern Cairo and the Egyptian diaspora—was hailed by Booklist, which called the book an “enthralling debut…Mahmoud explores the intricacies of Cairo’s social dynamics and how powerful family relations, societal judgment, and class can be despite physical and socioeconomic distance. His dynamic storytelling will keep readers engaged throughout.”

Outside Cairo International Airport, four taxi drivers approached me and began with “Welcome, welcome home,” and “The city has lit up,” and “What a sweet face you’ve brought us,” before they offered to carry my suitcase and argued among one another about who would take me home. I rebelled against their unsophisticated system and demanded to ride with the oldest man, who was losing ground in the dispute. I figured he would be the most likely to let me sit in silence until I arrived home, but as we waited in line to exit the parking lot, he asked me where I had returned from, and it turned out he had numerous opinions to share about America.

“It’s all their fault,” he said. “They burned Iraq to ashes, thinking that they could spill that much blood and get away with it. But that’s not how the world works, is it? They’re lucky they haven’t had more attacks. Do you know, my son, what it means to have a foreign man come into your land, kill your neighbors and relatives, and imprison you in your own jails? They will suffer the consequences for decades. It’s good you came back to your country.”

I performed a smile. “There’s a lot of kind people there, you know. And to attack innocent civilians is just wrong.”

He looked offended. “Of course it’s wrong. Do you not know the chapter from the Quran, ‘The Disbelievers’?”

“I do,” I said, hoping he wouldn’t recite it.

“In the name of God, Most Merciful, Most Compassionate. Say, Disbelievers. I do not worship what you worship. I will never worship what you worship. You will never worship what I worship. You have your religion and I have mine.”

“Ameen.”

“Let there be no compulsion in religion. Attack only when attacked.”

“Yes.”

“Of course it’s wrong,” the man said again. “These same terrorists kill their own Muslim brothers in Iraq. On the day of days, they will meet God, who will hand them the worst punishment.”

“Right.”

“But so will the Americans.”

I sighed. On a regular day, I would have spent the rest of the journey trying to explain to the driver, regardless of how stubborn he was, that there were millions of Americans who accepted and loved Muslims as their fellow citizens, and that their main intention was to get by, not to wage war against Islam. I would have emphasized that for every million men who believed that America was at war with Islam, one man would be successfully convinced to sacrifice his life for that war. But now my own cousin had become that man, that fool, and I didn’t have the will to argue with the driver. 

I lit a cigarette as we made it out of the airport and onto Salah Salem Street. On the surface, Cairo was a shock to the unaccustomed eye. Buildings originally painted in different colors were covered with so much dust that they had evolved into similar shades of grim. Drivers swerved in and out of lanes with no regard to order, honking every few seconds for no reason, as if to contribute to the mandatory peep peep peep that never ceased. Vendors whipped at the legs of malnourished horses so their carts could be dragged faster. Stray dogs and cats scavenged for food around the piles of trash that were dumped every mile or two on the sides of the road. 

I usually began to appreciate Cairo’s aesthetic within a few days of my return. Instead of being agonized by the constant honking, I would enjoy the sha’abe music blasting from the speakers of different cars and maybe even clap along to the tablas. Instead of being disturbed by the children who begged, the scars and zits and despair on their faces, I would notice the luckier children behind them, doing tricks with their bicycles on the sidewalks. Instead of fixating on the restrictions of religion, I would see just how profound it was that, five times a day, every day, millions of people gathered to pray and meditate together. This, however, was far from a regular homecoming, and I feared I was at risk of losing whatever affection I had for my hometown.

At a stoplight, a man with no legs dragged his torso through the spaces between the cars and asked me for change. I stuck my arm out the window and gave him a five-dollar bill. “You have to get it exchanged at the serafa,” I said. “It’s worth thirty pounds.” He kissed it, tapped it on his forehead, and then looked up at God. 

There was no traffic on the 6th of October Highway, an unusual occurrence that punched my chest with anxiety. We would be downtown in minutes, and I would have to withstand what could be weeks of family arguments, breakdowns, and mourning without being able to have a single drink. 

As we drove through Zamalek, I thought of what would happen if Amir was identified by someone who knew him as my cousin. It would be one of the relevant topics of conversation for weeks to come. Did you watch the game last night? Did you go see that movie? Oh, you know that terrorist on the news, the one who shot up the train? Well, that’s Sheero’s cousin. What would it do to my reputation here in Cairo? Would people assume I came from a family of fanatics? Would any respectable man ever let me marry his daughter? I already came from an inferior lineage. My grandfather hadn’t been a basha with European blood; he had been a businessman, and a peasant too. He had never learned how to eat with a fork and knife and could speak only one language. Now, my cousin had become a terrorist, a murderer, and not only would people claim to know someone who knew him, but my high school friends would remember meeting him, the day my mother forced me to take him out on his birthday.

An excerpt from the novel Cairo Circles by Doma Mahmoud, reprinted with permission from Unnamed Press.

Panel Mania: ‘The 500 Years of Indigenous Resistance Comic Book’

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Originally published in 2010 in black and white, Arsenal Pulp will issue a revised and expanded edition of The 500 Years of Indigenous Resistance Comic Book, written and drawn by Gord Hill, who has added nearly 60 pages of new material and redrew much of the book.

Hill is a member of the Kwakwaka’wakw nation and has worked in support of Indigenous peoples for years. The revised edition begins in the 15th century, with the Spanish invaders and Christopher Columbus, and continues into the present day, with current battles around the Dakota Access pipeline.

The book documents the horrific suffering inflicted on Indigenous people as well as their relentless resistance, resilience, and determination to retain their land, languages, and sovereignty.

This seven-page excerpt documents the 1990 Oka Crisis, a 77-day armed standoff with Canadian police and military in the Mohawk territories of the Kahnawake and Kanesatake near Montreal.

The 500 Years of Indigenous Resistance Comic Book: Revised and Expanded by Gord Hill publishes on Oct. 26 from Arsenal Pulp.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Panel Mania: ‘Run: Book One’

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Picking up where the late Rep. John Lewis’s acclaimed graphic memoir March ended, his new memoir, Run, opens as the Watts uprising breaks out, the 1965 Voting Rights Act becomes law, and the impact of Black Nationalism, Pan Africanism, the Vietnam war, and the anti-apartheid movement create new challenges to the tenets of the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement and to young Lewis’s leadership of Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

Run invokes a new phase in the movement’s struggle against Jim Crow segregation and for Black voting rights, depicting the continuing racist violence directed at activists, as well as local segregationist acts of anti-Black voter suppression—such as closing polling places in Black neighborhoods—which seem eerily similar to our contemporary political conflicts over voting.

In this short excerpt, Lewis reflects on growing political factions within the ranks of the Black Civil Rights Movement and acknowledges the global nature of the Black liberation movement. The excerpt also includes L. Fury’s character designs and early sketches.

Excerpt provided by Abrams ComicArts from Run: Book One by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, with illustrations by Nate Powell and L. Fury © John Lewis and Andrew Aydin.

Bonus Links:
Difficult History: On John Lewis’s March

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Porochista Khakpour on Stephen Dixon: An Excerpt from McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #63

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Life versus art. This was the concept that hovered around our heads, us young aspiring writers in the then second-best writing program in the country (Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars). The question was fashionable at the time. You could be the writer who had discipline and craft and skills, or you could be the writer who really lived, whose adventures were the anecdotes that made up intricate plots, whose characters were based on a cast so real they were called “larger-than-life.” Our program was split between those camps, and the question—if it was a question, even—was never resolved. I recall regularly staying out all night with my set of loud, messy, rebellious types, while other students were back in their apartments by dinnertime. We found this amusing but easy to understand: They were in the camp that chose art; we had chosen life. Different roads, that was all.

“Where the hell would you get an idea like that? Dichotomies? When, ever? I mean, really, you are asking where do I stand?” my most beloved professor and mentor, Stephen Dixon, asked me in his office one day when I brought up this idea of the two camps, thinking I was really onto something. But his face quickly let me know that was not the case.

“You’re kidding, right?” he went on.

“Yes,” I lied sweetly with a tight smile.

“Good,” he grumbled. It always felt like there was an invisible cigarette he was taking a long drag off of between his fingers. Dixon was constantly teetering into exasperation but never so much that it felt like resentment, thank goodness.

The last time I saw Stephen Dixon was seventeen years ago, back when I was a student, and I don’t even remember the exact moment. I had no idea he was going to retire just four years after I left. I think I imagined him existing forever in exactly that form, as our forever mentor, sighing and groaning and rolling his eyes, somehow always still lovingly. Did we have a proper goodbye, even? The night before our graduation, a group of the worst troublemakers in our cohort and I, plus my visiting hometown best friend, all piled into someone’s run-down station wagon and drove to Atlantic City after hours of drinking at a pub in the heart of Baltimore. I think we made it there around 4:00 a.m., and all I remember is how awful the dawn light felt, how we drank even more, how someone threw up outside the station wagon window, how I made out with a friend while squished in the middle seat on the way home, and how we got back in time for short, ugly naps just before the graduation ceremony. Did he see me then? Or was our most memorable meeting the last, weeks before graduation, when I went to his office just after unsuccessfully attempting suicide among the tulips of Guilford Park, when the pressures of my thesis were becoming too much, especially when paired with addiction and mental illness? In that meeting he tore an orange in two parts with his bare hands and handed me half, and I ate it along with him right into that jagged wet wild, a face full of orange juice and pulp and tears, as I asked him what road to take in life. He was not put off by the question and didn’t hesitate to answer it: he thought I was a novelist, not a short story writer; that I should go back to New York and not teach but do real stuff, like drive a cab or tend bar. Like he had. Eventually I should publish books (in the end he published thirty-five books and over seven hundred stories, which he felt any of us could do with some discipline), get married, have kids—all like he had. Life. Art.

It sounded okay. In the end, I did teach and I did not get married or have kids. But I published. And maybe he knew it, maybe he did not. I can’t remember seeing him in the audience when I returned to campus in 2008 to give a reading to the Writing Seminars after my first novel’s debut. The second time I was back on campus to read was in November 2019, just under twenty-four hours after his death.

There are few humans I loved more than Stephen Dixon. Not only was he the model of a writer for me, but he was also the model of a human. Art, life. Not only did we learn so much as his students, but we learned as his readers. And that’s something everyone should be glad to hear, because he left a tremendous body of work. Anyone can access him in this way, which he would argue was his most genuine form of connection—he was his writing, more than any writer I have ever encountered.

He wrote daily, often a story a day. How? He didn’t have to choose a camp. Life was art, and he included it all, unfiltered—the line between fiction and nonfiction was irrelevant. We knew all about his wife and daughters, his home office, his bed and bathroom, his garage and car, the women he slept with in his twenties, the run-ins big and small that made him who he was. It’s rare to read the writing of a man that gets this personal, but that was the reality with Steve. He would line-edit your stories so much that you assumed syntax and diction were his only concerns, but then in conference he’d have you bawling into the guts of an orange, confessing suicidal ideation, only to match your stories of adversity with his own.

You always knew you were okay, because he was around. And I guess that’s maybe why I never got back in touch. I thought he’d always be around. Besides, he let us know how much he hated email. He was always brutally honest, and that honesty was a bit terrifying. He made it clear that teaching, giving readings, being interviewed, going to the grocery store, parking his car, answering the phone—all of it was a nuisance, as it interrupted his one purpose: to have writing time. Only time with his wife and daughters took priority over writing.

I still feel intimidated just reading his stories again, sensing his irritation with a reader who can’t keep up with his spiraling logic in the twists and tangles of his neuroses, not unlike his constant infuriation at agents and editors and at the endless politics of mainstream publishing. Steve never had time for things like that, though he made all the time in the world for others.

He loved underdogs, for example, and ultimately I think that is how he learned to love himself. I was an underdog, too, and he saw that in me. He was the only reason I survived that year. And his sheet of carefully composed, typewritten line-edits of my story “Spectacle,” which I wrote in my final weeks in his workshop, was what led me to write my first novel, Sons and Other Flammable Objects—which kept basically the same story line but converted into what he thought was its rightful form. Steve had seen me get brutalized one too many times in class workshops—I was one of the only non–Ivy League students, one of the youngest too—and he always found a way to rescue my stories from the class’s default of pure assault. I’ll never quite know if it was because of that protectiveness or because the story was actually good that he encouraged “Spectacle.”

Does it really matter? I can imagine him asking.

No, I can imagine myself lying.

I was invited to speak at his memorial, where I met his daughters, both as smart and lovely and interesting as I had imagined. It was on February 27, 2020, in the final weeks of normalcy before most of the country would be in pandemic lockdown. The Murmrr Ballroom, in Brooklyn, was packed with oddballs, and it had a funny psychedelic sheen to its lighting. In all my photos of the audience, every white-haired person appears like a blue-haired Dr. Seuss character. We laughed more than I thought we would laugh that night. The stories everyone told were uproarious and irreverent—you felt that his life, just like his art, involved a very lively cast.

A few weeks later, I spoke on the phone for hours with an author who is writing his biography, and I laughed and cried through so many memories. Just weeks later, I received a package in the mail: a half dozen hardcover editions of books Dixon authored, from his personal library. The biographer was assisting the family in cleaning out his office. I held the books tight; traced their jackets for dust; even, like a character in a bad melodrama, sniffed the pages in case they could take me back to him for a moment—and then I placed them in the order they had come in and piled them by my desk. The books have become an altar of sorts: a totem I face every single day, every single writing day.

He would have noticed that to me “a day” now equals “a writing day,” and maybe that would have made him prouder than anything. That was all him, after all.

When I received the stories that appear in this issue, I was touched to see that they were scans of typewritten pages in PDF form, a few with typos, even, which felt triumphant to spot (line-editing the line-edit king!), precious in their raw humanness. The stories, unsurprisingly, were stunning. The subjects also felt so familiar, so in keeping with the concerns of the Dixon canon: writer finishing a story, man meeting a future wife, New York City flashbacks, Maryland suburbia, the burdens and joys of being the father of daughters, a wife’s passing, aging, small talk and the negotiations of everyday life, the body’s failures (pills, catheters, hospitals, hospice), everyday urban sustenance (sandwiches, coffee, wine, fried oysters, smoked salmon, fish burgers). And there were the classic Dixonian themes: shame, tenderness, anxiety, intimacy, frustration, love, loss. And there was that trademark Dixon sound: long, winding sentences that operate like arteries for every anxiety imaginable, together creating a pulsing network of honest internal monologues. It felt so good to turn those pages and to be so deep in his head and to find that place a familiar one, to know that at the end of his life he was still at one with his art.

And then the pages stopped. It happened in that premature dark of November 2019, in my office in Queens, with just the sounds of the city—subways, cabs, birds, the hum and rattle of pipes—filling in where he left off. I wanted so badly for there be more (and somehow I suspect there must be, that there has to be more to come). But the way his words, his precise and passionate art, bled from the page right into the exterior landscape of my life, so many realities removed, reminded me: When you really live, and when you really tackle that life in your art, the pages never quite end. The narration might drop out, but the story is still in motion. If done right, the border blurs, the boundaries of life and of art fade into each other—your breath exists alongside your characters’; the sounds of your city overlay the sounds of the protagonist’s city; the distractions nagging at the corners of your consciousness are suddenly incorporated into the psyche of an ingenue cliffhanging. There is no real finale, since the world continues long after we’re gone. Dixon’s storytelling was like a house that’s larger on the inside than on the outside. When I finished these stories, I was left with a similar sense: that we are all just players in a story he wrote long ago, which has a life now past his own. And just like in his book Interstate, when the father dies in the final pages of the first section and the story continues without the father’s close third point of view, here we are, left with the roles he has written for us.

It makes sense that in this batch of stories, one is called “Finding an Ending” and begins: “I can’t seem to finish the story I’ve been writing.” If that isn’t an author who knows death is on the way, I don’t know what is. Another, “The Lost One,” begins: “Good morning, my dearie. Sleep well?” And the answer is “I want to go home.” And to double down on the Dixonian flourishes, he pushes it deeper: “You don’t understand. Or you’re not listening. I want to go home because I want to die there.” By the time we get to “Oh My Darling”—I won’t spoil the central dilemma there—we know Dixon’s fixation is on the idea of decline. He’s not dealing with decline generally, but his own degeneration after a long, colorful life, and only with the recognition that the world around him will continue its spins of colorful lives when he’s gone. In these stories there is nothing nostalgic, sentimental, or fever-pitched—the emotional frequencies he sometimes favored—and the obsessive register is there still, but it’s muted and almost revels in the mundane. Life, as cliché as it is to say, does indeed go on, these pages seem to say—and so does art, no matter who comes and goes. The stories get told no matter which storytellers enter or exit.

The altar of his books faces me each day, daring me to create something lasting like that. I don’t know if I will, but at least I know I was taught how to.

Excerpted from McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #63. Published with permission from McSweeney’s and Porochista Khakpour. All Rights Reserved.

‘Give My Love to the Savages’: Featured Fiction from Chris Stuck

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In today’s edition of featured fiction, curated by our own Carolyn Quimby, we present an excerpt—a portion of the short story “Lake No Negro”—from Chris Stuck’s debut story collection, Give My Love to the Savages.
The book earned praise from the likes of Victor LaValle, who described the collection as “Black satire with bite,” and Publishers Weekly, which said, “Stuck brings uncompromising humor and judicious characterizations, offering piercing insights on the complexity of his characters’ experiences. The author’s perfect balance of absurdism and realism makes these stories shine.”
LAKE NO NEGRO
Andre had never been with a white woman, an older woman, a conventionally beautiful woman, much less one he’d just met. But here he was. Her name was Farrah, and they’d stumbled onto each other in the beginner class at the Rock and Rope, a large indoor rock-climbing gym in the southeast part of town. Their instructor randomly paired them up, and for an hour, they scaled a three-story modular wall called the Slab. It was a good partnership. Andre and Farrah picked their way up the climbing holds like spiders up a web. But every time they reached the top, Andre found her giving him a high five or a hug, holding on to him, he noticed, a little longer than she needed to.

She was in her early forties, Andre guessed, and not hurting in the cash department. She possessed the grooming and physique of someone with a salon and trainer at her beck and call. In Portland, so many people were scribbled with tattoos, looking so eccentric and pasty, that Farrah’s mainstream glow made her unusual. She didn’t look at all like the lead singer of some shaggy folk band. Quite the contrary. She looked like a perky blond aerobics instructor.

As she showered, he lay in bed, sex drunk. He reclined against his wad of pillows and fell into a parade of dreams he never used to have back east. In one, he was an ironclad warrior atop a powerful white steed. In another, he was the commander of an army of soldiers. When he opened his eyes after a fourth little dream, he found she was gone. On the pillow next to him was a note, though. It said, “Dinner. My place. Saturday. 6pm.” Underneath she’d written the address, some town in the suburbs called Lake Oswego.
* * *
Andre was twenty-six and from DC. He’d journeyed west to spice up his life. Farrah was from Northern California, but she hadn’t said why she’d relocated or what she did for a living. Andre didn’t push. Over his six months in Portland, he’d learned that this city lacked the irony or speed found in most American cities. The place was so strange and carefree that he incorrectly assumed no one there was employed or even aspired to be. He figured Farrah was, in all likelihood, one of “those Californians” vilified by Portland’s liberals, those wealthy Californians who bought up the cheap real estate and spit it back on the market at a profit, something Andre wasn’t that invested in.

That Saturday, he prepared for his dinner date by renting an electric car and whizzing down to the Pearl District to buy some dress clothes at a shop called the Social Ladder. He checked himself out in the store’s three-way mirror and suddenly thought of his old life. Just a year before, he’d been the definition of metrosexual. He was an up-and-coming yet

bored financial analyst who’d amassed a pretty decent savings. He got his hair cut weekly. He clipped his fingernails every Sunday night and often tended to his closet of expensive suits and coats.

Since he’d come to Portland, however, he’d let himself go. His hair was in naps. He shaved infrequently. And what clothes he had, he lugged down to a Laundromat in a trash bag once

every two weeks, washing them without separating the colors from the whites, something his ex, Nina, used to do that drove him nuts. “You’re so uptight,” she used to always say. “Why do you have to be so weird?”

He missed the tidiness of his old life as well as those designer clothes he’d given to the Goodwill like a dope before he’d moved. Andre imagined a homeless person living on the DC streets, looking like Denzel Washington with all his nice threads, while he was across the country looking like a bohemian. He ran his fingers over his naps, took out his phone, and found one of the few Black barbershops in Portland. He had his head shaved to the scalp, his goatee cut off like a tumor. At home, he dressed and doused himself in cologne, and since he’d recently started smoking weed again, he took a quick bong hit to ease his mind.
* * *
As he traversed the city, fairly zooted, he got introspective. He didn’t know why, but memories of Nina had been clamping down on him from out of nowhere. She was partly why he’d moved west, to forget about her even if she’d already forgotten about him. As he neared Lake Oswego, he had a vision of his last night in DC, when he’d made the Titanic-size boo-boo of calling her one last time.

When she answered, the endeavor showed promise. Her voice was bubbly, happy, like how it used to be. When she realized it was him, though, she sounded like a bored customer-service rep. He waded through the awkward salutations, which yielded some info: She was well. She was active. And she was living with her parents, a fact he was pleased to hear since it made her sound a little pitiful.

“Are you working?” he said.

“Sure. My writing and pottery are going really well.”

“No. I mean actual employment. Something that, you know, makes money.”

She simply said yes. She was a barista.

He laughed when she flamboyantly rolled the “r” in “barista.” “Isn’t that just a pretentious way of saying you pour coffee?”

“If you think Italian is pretentious, then yes,” she said. “My boyfriend owns the shop.”

That was the first blow. Boyfriend. And it was just like her to throw it in when he wasn’t expecting it. He didn’t say anything for what seemed like minutes and tried to recover by asking the guy’s name.

“Alastair.”

That was the second blow. The name was so blue blood, so Caucasian, that he didn’t know whether to die laughing or curl up in a ball and weep. Andre imagined a towheaded cricket player, someone with an accent, someone related to the British royal family. Instantly, he wanted to murder him, but he thought he did a good job hiding that. “Well, great. I’m glad for you. I guess you’ve finally made it.”

“Why?” she said. “Because he’s white?”

“That’s not what I meant.” He should’ve stopped there, purely out of embarrassment. This conversation was going to get around to everyone they knew. But he was a little drunk at the time. What honest-to-goodness whiskey drinker would quit now? Forge on, the liquor told him. Break new ground. “Let me ask you this. Does he call you ‘Lovie’ when you fuck? Do you guys have cucumber sandwiches afterward?”

She just sighed.

“Tell the truth. When you guys get married, he’ll want you to wear a tiara, won’t he?” He heard himself squeal in delight.

“You know what? Unlike your weird ass, he’s extremely sensitive and caring and loving and brilliant. He’s a poet.”

“Oh, well, of course he is. Only a poet deserves so many adjectives bestowed upon him.” Andre stopped to laugh again. He was astounded she hadn’t hung up on him yet. He would’ve hung up on himself by then. Of course, that was exactly when she did.
* * *
As Andre entered Lake Oswego, he was drenched in that jealousy again. He thought his feelings for Nina had faded. He thought he’d forgotten all about Alastair and his great poetry. He hadn’t even had the chance to tell her he was leaving town. Just the idea of them and the snooty kids they’d have made Andre want to go back to his apartment and sulk.

But according to his GPS, he was almost to Farrah’s, close enough that it would’ve been stupid to turn back. Perhaps getting blackout drunk in front of total strangers would take his mind off things. Then he could pack his crap and move to LA or Seattle, or to DC to get his job back.

Remarkably, though, as he escaped the throughways and drove deeper into the woods, Andre found his fog burning off. The avenues turned twisty and lush. Just driving them made his high come back. He’d heard Lake Oswego had been nicknamed Lake No Negro, but no one ever told him if it was because the town, like the rest of Portland, was just really white or if it was really white and anti-Black. Every section of town had a strange nickname anyway. So, who knew? There was no one on the street, white or otherwise. Andre expected to see mansions and topiaries and wrought iron gates everywhere. Instead, the houses were vague structures shrouded in overgrown vegetation, the homes of wealthy people who didn’t trim their hedges.

Andre wound over to South Shore Boulevard, gliding until his GPS said he’d arrived. His electric car sat silent as he assessed the residence from the street. It was ultramodern and white, more a structure than a house. It sat below street level on a lakefront property, looking like those Frank Lloyd Wright homes Nina talked about. Andre coasted down the gravel drive and passed a cedar-clad carport with a Jaguar, an SUV, and Farrah’s Mercedes parked inside.

He walked up to the door with some carnations and a bottle of Champagne, the real kind, from the Champagne region of France. It was a piece of knowledge Nina had pounded into his brain after he’d once brought home a case of Korbel thinking it was the good shit. He’d picked this bottle, a blanc de noir that set him back a chilly one-fifty, simply to impress but also because he liked the name. The French guy in the wine shop said it meant “white from black grapes,” which had a sense of transformation about it, like “water into wine” and “lemons into lemonade.”

Andre rang the doorbell, and it produced a classical tune that lasted a minute. Just as it reached its final note, the door was snatched open by a young Asian woman who stood there in a gray sweatshirt with the neck cut out. Andre introduced himself and said he was there for dinner, but she just sized him up, after which she crossed her arms and screamed, “Farrah, your stupid friend’s here!”

Andre thought of cracking a joke, but the way she thinned her eyes at him made him decide against it.

The interior of the house was a collection of marble and concrete, stainless steel and wood. Andre felt like he was walking into an issue of Architectural Digest. The foyer’s ceiling was a huge sheet of glass, a window to the sky. As he stood there, a large chandelier exploded with light, and there was Farrah, gliding down the wooden staircase in a kimono. She greeted him with outstretched arms, the way rich people did on TV.

She said she was glad he’d arrived, surveying him with a smile and evidently approving. “You clean up good.” She petted his shaved head and face. “I’m glad you got rid of the goatee. It didn’t suit you. You look like a little boy now.”

Andre didn’t know how to take that. And he was still a little high. “Thanks.” He looked at the Asian woman, who was looking back at him like a repulsed teenager.

Farrah then startled him by rubbing her nose against his, and the Asian woman said, “Are you fucking kidding me?” under her breath.

That was when an older white guy emerged atop the staircase, tucking his dress shirt into his slacks. He looked to be in his midsixties, the distinguished air of a politician radiating from every pore. He jogged down the steps obligingly, his knees cracking. “Tanya,” he said to the Asian woman. “Shouldn’t you be getting dressed?”

Like a chastened child, she said, “All right,” stomping down the hallway to the back of the house and blowing through the patio doors.

When Andre turned back to Farrah, he found her and the old guy studying him. The guy was as tan as Farrah. His silver hair swooped back from his forehead in a perfect wave. “I’m Dennis.” He reached out his meaty hand. “You must be Andre.”

It was at that moment that everything aligned. He looked from Farrah to Dennis, who now stood behind her with his hand on her shoulder, his lips pinched in a half smile, as if to say, “You got it, buddy. I’m the father.” Andre thought he could even see a resemblance.

“I didn’t know this was a family dinner.” Farrah looked at Dennis and smiled. “Well, that’s what we are. One big happy family.”

“Come on in.” Dennis guided him down the hallway, which dropped them into a recessed great room. To the left was a stainless steel kitchen that looked like a small factory. To the right was a living room, sunken even lower, with numerous African masks on the wall. When Andre first moved to town, some drunk guy in a bar told him, “Tip numero uno, bro. Don’t ever go to the suburbs. People are weird out there.”

Standing in that sparkling room now, though, Andre couldn’t quite believe that.

Excerpt from Give My Love to the Savages: Stories by Chris Stuck. Published by Amistad. Copyright © 2021 HarperCollins.

Panel Mania: ‘Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts’

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Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts by Rebecca Hall and Hugo Martinez is a riveting combination of graphic memoir and inspirational scholarship.

An attorney frustrated by repeated encounters with sexism and racism in the criminal justice system, Hall returned to pursue a PhD in history, in a personal search for women warriors lost to history and with a larger scholarly goal of documenting women-led slave revolts during the colonial slave trade.

In this eight-page excerpt Hall’s dogged efforts to research a slave revolt in 1712 in New York City send her on a passionate academic quest to the vast and sometimes restricted 18th-century slave trade archives in New York City, London, and Liverpool.

Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts will be published by Simon & Schuster in June.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Panel Mania: ‘Save It For Later’

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Save It for Later: Promises, Parenthood, and the Urgency of Protest by Nate Powell—the artist for John Lewis’s acclaimed Civil Rights graphic memoir,  March—is a deeply felt collection of comics essays exploring the conflicts and emotional scars of living through the Trump era while raising two young daughters. The book also explores the need to embrace some form of activist resistance that makes sense and makes a difference.

In this eight-page excerpt, National Book Award-winner Powell surveys life in a liberal college town surrounded by white supremacist activity, sundown towns, and local fascists.

Save It for Later: Promises, Parenthood, and the Urgency of Protest by Nate Powell is out now from Abrams ComicArts.

Bonus Link:
An Anti-Racist Graphic Novel Reading List

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Panel Mania: ‘Embodied’

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Embodied: An Intersectional Feminist Comics Poetry Anthology is being published to coincide with International Women’s Health Month in May, and a portion of the proceeds from its sale will go to the International Women’s Health Coalition.

Edited by the book’s publishers, Wendy Chin-Tanner and Tyler Chin-Tanner, Embodied offers 23 poems focused on gender, identity, and the body by an impressive selection of contemporary cis female, trans, and non-binary poets, adapted into comics narratives drawn, colored, and lettered by non-cis male artists.

From the book’s introduction: “Our vision with this book is to provide a platform for poets and artists of marginalized genders and identities to tell their own stories, at a time when they are most under siege.”

The comics poem featured in this excerpt is “Tapestry” by Khaty Xiong with art by Morgan Beem.

Embodied: An Intersectional Feminist Comics Poetry Anthology will be published by A Wave Blue World on May 18.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

‘We Are Bridges’: Featured Nonfiction from Cassandra Lane

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In the latest edition of featured nonfiction—curated by our own Carolyn Quimby—we present an excerpt from Cassandra Lane’s memoir, We Are Bridges.
The book, which won the 2020 Louise Meriwether First Book Prize, explores Lane’s ancestral history in order to give her future child a family history. Weaving the story of her great-grandparent’s lives in the rural South and her life in current-day Los Angeles, Lane explores the ways the past informs the present—and how to beautifully reclaim it.

I AM LEARNING that no matter how much you want to divorce yourself from your past—or from one of your parents—both are intrinsically part and parcel of you for the rest of your life.

My father’s ways colored my sister’s ways and mine long after Mama left him and reentered the home and culture of her youth.

On my mother’s side, we were a black and sanctified people who believed in hard work and God. While secular music was forbidden in our home, its beats surrounded Dena and me every time we stepped outside our house, and those beats felt as though they had always been a part of my blood and marrow. 

Our school bus driver, Mr. St. Romaine, blasted R&B over the speakers on the way to and from school. He raised the volume to drown out the students’ noise. His music eased his scowl. I got lost in the lyrics and rhythm of the Isley Brother’s “Insatiable Woman.” I didn’t exactly know what the song meant, but my body responded to its suggestiveness.

We were late bloomers, Dena and I. We were well into our teens before any sign of womanhood began to peek through our stick bodies and before what the world would deem as desirable began to flower.

In the afternoons, we would sneak on MTV and VH1 whenever we could, watching Janet Jackson move her hips and flip her hair over her eyes. On Saturdays, Mama would drop us off at the washateria before she drove off toward more errands or to return home to rest. There was a jukebox inside the laundry mat, and we relished opportunities to listen to the latest R&B and pop hits on blast. We especially loved Klymaxx’s “Meeting in the Ladies Room” and all of Jodi Whatley’s hits. Dena swore she was Jodi Whatley. She teased and sprayed her hair, donned enormous hoop earrings, and (when liberated from our family’s watchful eyes) painted her lips red.

When Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” came on, we lost it. After a few Saturdays of getting our routine down, we ran outside to the concrete walkway in front of the washateria one day, dancing away all semblance of shyness. We bent our knees and gyrated our hips. Left, right. Right, left.

Mama would have fainted. Then promptly risen and whipped our behinds.

We had never seen our mother dance, nor our grandparents, although Grandmama was prone to a sudden foot shout now and then to a gospel song at church, on the record player,

or one locked in her head.

To what were Dena and I grinding? Why did our bodies yearn to move despite what we had been taught? How had our pelvises known how to move?

We are our father’s daughters.

As we blossomed into teenagers, Mama tried to prepare us for impending romantic heartache. Her prophesies were as doomful as the ones Uncle Junior handed down in church about the end times.

“Men will use you up and throw you away,” she would say.

We had seen her attempt to date since leaving our father in the late seventies; we had seen her left high and dry and pregnant when those men threw her away. To make matters worse, she said, black men always want white women or the next best thing: a combination of big breasts, long flowing hair, and light skin. The lighter the better.

I had none of that.

My skin was the color of maple syrup, my breasts shaped like small cones, and my hair coarse and slow to grow.

Still, when I got ready for love, I was determined to prove Mama wrong. There are great black men out there, I thought, and I would find my black knight. I would not be like her, choosing the wrong man over and over. I had to believe I was as worthy, as sexy, and as beautiful as the women I looked nothing like. And I had to believe there were men who would appreciate me the way I was. More than that, I had to believe that there was one who would make me, as the group Midnight Star sang, the object of desire.

I LOVE MEN, but I had seen my mother and other women broken too many times by the men they loved. But while a part of me fought against those narratives and held out hope and belief that true love and true fidelity between a black man and a black woman were possible—yes, like in Mama’s romance novels but with our own twist—I still had something to prove. I wanted to demolish every single lie that black men had ever told themselves about me, about black women; I wanted to get inside that lie, to the belly of that lie, which means I have had to get inside the man, inside his head and heart and trust because the surefire, most effective way to uproot what has had time to nest is to dig down to the beginning of the network of roots. I wanted to get into the center of the lies and plant dynamite and then crawl back out to safety and watch the devastating lies explode and burn and turn to ash and die. The lies I want to destroy are that we, black women, are strong enough to withstand their bullshit and weak enough to take them back; that we are too much while simultaneously not enough; that we are backward and gullible, stubborn and difficult; and that we will always be there no matter what, even if they leave.

I’ve wanted loyalty, but what is loyalty to me? I am willing to love black men as hard as they love me, for as long or as short as that fuse burns; when it goes out, I have no clue how to light it back.

WITH WIDE SWATHS of years existing between the moments my father and I communicate, I have been, mostly, able to forget about him, to forget I have a father, and perhaps this ability to shut off a valve in my heart colors my relationships with men. And yet when out of the blue my father does reappear in my life—through a letter or Facebook message—I find it hard to breathe. The closed-off valve in my heart pumps again, waiting for him to redeem himself, to declare his undying love, to say, “I’m sorry.”

That has never happened, and I am left with the task of closing the valve back up again and packing it with ice. Yet as I carried my child, his grandchild, in my body, I realized I no longer hated my father. Trying to protect my child from ancestral trauma outside of my control might have been an impossible feat, but what I could control, I believed, was the effect of my father’s baggage on my parenting.

I searched for the few photos I have of my father and studied them, studied his young face. All of the images are from the early seventies. In one, he is sitting in a gold jacquard-print

armchair. He has on a black, nylon, collared shirt with small white buttons; gray slacks; sheer black socks; and a shiny silver watch with a gold-trimmed face. He had placed the fingers of his left hand on his chin for a kind of contemplative pose. His smile is slight, seeking confidence—glamour even. His short fro is immaculate. His appearance stands out against the stark and sparse background: bare walls, cheap brown carpet, and a large whirring box fan. How hot was it that day, and where was my father going or coming from?

In this photo, he is a new father. I am one year old, and my sister Dena is on the way.

As I stare at the image, it strikes me that I’ve never seen a photograph of my father as a child—vulnerable, hopeful—and that missing image feels vital. Did someone crush his spirit, and if so, at what point? Was it someone he knew and trusted? How did his country put its knee on his black neck and at what point? When he was a teen or younger?

Surely, he was not always a perpetually tormented soul who wreaks havoc on other souls.

When I first moved to Los Angeles, he got my mailing address from Dena and sent me a large brown envelope filled with homemade greeting cards he had drawn and written something he called poetry on. He was in jail.

“Your daddy loves you,” he wrote.

I wondered, Who is the me that he loves? Suddenly, my sense of self was swallowed. Perhaps he knew me in a way that I did not know myself. Perhaps there was some part of me out there being loved by him and the me I knew was completely detached from her. His poetry was candy-cane sweet—the purple-and-yellow candy canes that I once gorged on so much as a kid that the very sight of them today makes my stomach queasy.

I wrote him back, telling him how the pain of his absence had stifled me for years. I told him about my choice not to become a mother.

In his response letter, he laughed at me. He ignored the pain I revealed and laughed. At least, his words, haughty and confident, felt like laughter.

“You will have children,” he wrote. “You will have many children, my daughter.”

I read the lines again and again. Shaken. Furious. Unsure.

ON OUR WAY to Houston once, a man I was dating suggested we stop in Beaumont to see my father. John was from Houston and was taking me to meet his family. He was of the belief that families should be reconciled. He wanted to do the honorable thing and meet my father.

“Maybe he’s changed,” he said, full of empathy for my father: another man.

“Yeah, right,” I said. “I doubt it.”

I was twenty-four, carving out a life for myself, and a part of me wanted my father to see what he had missed in not raising me, not caring. I had graduated from high school and college without him, and I was working my first full-time job as a newspaper reporter. My boyfriend was a pleasant young man who was climbing the corporate ladder. I wanted my father to see all of this and be proud—and ashamed.

But I watched him look at me and see only himself. He brought out shoeboxes of poems and stories and jokes he had written.

“I’ve been writing for years,” he said after I told him that I worked as a journalist at a newspaper. “I could give you a run for your money.”

I never got around to telling him about my larger dreams. He provided no space.

“Maybe you could take some of my stories back with you, show some of your people,” he said. “Baby, your daddy gon’ be famous.”

“I’m so sorry, babe,” my boyfriend said when we were back in the car. “It was a mistake to come here.” His big hands were warm on my face. He kissed my tears and I laughed“I told you,” I said. “You wanted me to come here. Put the past in the past, right?”

“I’m so sorry,” he repeated.

And I was sorry, too, in that moment, as well as a year or so later when I broke John’s heart. His soft words turned to stones that he threw.

“My mama warned me about girls like you. Girls with no daddies,” he spat at me when I told him I was in love with someone else, an older man. Ric.

What is loyalty to me? I have never seen it up close. I hold out hope that Mary and Burt were the epitome of loyalty and love and that all we as a family needed was to be witnesses of that love.

Perhaps my obsession with Burt Bridges really is just a search for a father.

I want a father who is good and great and alive.

I want a love that is good and great and alive.

From We Are Bridges by Cassandra Lane. Used with the permission of the Feminist Press. Copyright © 2021 by Cassandra Lane.

Panel Mania: ‘The Thud’ by Mikael Ross

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Told with an endearing combination of empathy and humor, Mikael Ross’s The Thud is the story of Noel, a young boy with development disabilities who hears a sound—the thud of the title—and discovers his mother has fallen in the bathroom, hit her head, and is in a coma.
After his mother’s terrible injury, Noel’s secure and loving life with her is upended; he must leave home and is sent to live in a group home that offers him new opportunities for friendship, relationships, and personal growth.
In this excerpt, Noel is comforted by a kindly nurse at the hospital. The Thud by Mikael Ross is out now from Fantagraphics.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.