When I was in high school I worked as a Christmas gift wrapper at the Chinook Bookshop in Colorado Springs. I can remember everything about the job except how I got it. I don’t remember an interview or even an application. All I remember is that every girl—and it was only girls—who wrapped books at the Chinook simply knew she was the sort of girl who wrapped books at the Chinook, and I was one of those girls. So on a weekday afternoon in early November of my junior year, I walked from William J. Palmer High School across Acacia Park to the Chinook, opened its heavy wooden door, and presented myself in the way that, just a few miles away at the Broadmoor hotel, a different sort of girl of the same age in the same season would present herself as a debutante in a white dress and a jeweled tiara. (At the Chinook I presented myself in a messy ponytail and button-fly Levis and a down jacket.) The gift wrappers at the Chinook were North End girls, the North End being the old downtown section of a newly sprawling western city, a downtown of treed boulevards and clapboard houses so separate from the city swelling around it that only in college did I learn that the rest of the country saw Colorado Springs as something of a joke: militarized, fundamentalist, ignorant. What I saw instead was Pikes Peak from every street corner, towering and maternal and vigilant. I saw the loud and gentle Vietnam vets who lived in the Albany Apartments and panhandled out front on Tejon Street, the stucco churches with their statues of a brown Jesus, the shallow creek near the highway where in spring we waded in water the color of rust. I saw the Chinook. And the Chinook saw me. I was there nearly every Saturday, buying a Tony Hillerman mystery for my mom's birthday or a hardback copy of The Bean Trees with my saved babysitting wages. And when I didn't have enough to buy a new book, which was the case more often than not, I sat on one of the kick stools meant for shelving books and read one straight through, sucking on sugar cubes I'd pinched from the bowl next to the free coffee in the back of the store. I thought no one noticed me, but of course they did. They noticed and they made an allowance, and because they did the store became my church. And when I was 16 and they hired me to be a gift wrapper, the store became my heaven. In the weeks before Christmas the Chinook was loud and warm and full. Toddlers threw stuffed monkeys from the two-story playhouse in the children's book section; men in hiking boots and dirty ski jackets bent over topographical maps they'd pulled from tall oak chests containing all the landscapes of the West: every vein, every slope, from the prairie to the Pacific. Shoppers balanced tall stacks of books in their arms, left stacks of books on the wide black counter while they went back for more. By early afternoon the store had the feeling of a house party: forgotten scarves hanging from shelving ladders, sunglasses and coffee cups left on book display tables. Protesting children lying in the aisles. And boys. Boys looking for their sisters, boys looking for their fathers, sometimes even boys looking for a book. It was easy to talk with boys at the Chinook, despite the silly apron, despite the glossy wrapped packages in my arms. It's easier to stand solid and brave on your little spot of earth when you have a job. (I would remember this 20 years later when my job was taking care of my young children, a job that the world is very quick to tell you is not actually a job at all. I would think how strange it was that at 16 years old, wearing an apron and gift-wrapping books, I felt more solidly planted on the earth than I did when I was a 35-year old married mother of two children with an advanced degree.) [millions_ad] When a customer wanted her books wrapped, a bookseller—at the Chinook they were booksellers, never sales clerks—would call out for one of us. "Wrap, please!" he'd say, turning from the counter to the cluttered warren where we worked, a narrow space behind the sales counter that was as dark and cramped as a ship's kitchen. One of us would pop out and stand smiling at his side, ready to receive. We were taught to study the customer quickly and carefully, and to identify three physical characteristics that would distinguish her from the multitudes. We weren't given the customers' names, or even a copy of their sales slips. Only their books, which we were to return to them, wrapped, in as little time as possible. When the sales transaction was complete we scooped the books off the counter and took them back to our narrow worktop where we wrapped shoulder-to-shoulder, sharing two tape dispensers and four commercial-size rolls of wrapping paper mounted just above our heads. When we emerged with the wrapped books and approached the waiting customer we weren't allowed to ask, "Are these your books?" We were to say, "Here are your books. Merry Christmas." We were to surprise them with our speed and confidence and our knowing. That was our job. On weekday evenings this wasn't hard. But on Saturdays, when the swarm of customers waiting for their wrapped books would be five deep, 20 or 30 people waiting for their books, it was very hard. But we still did it, and we didn't make mistakes. We were the sort of girls who paid attention. On my lunch break I would walk to the cheese shop for a sandwich and I'd see kids from school, and I would say hello to boys and girls I wouldn't say hello to in the halls. I suppose I said hello because it was Christmas and there was a little snow falling, and because of that solid feeling. I didn't wear a coat because I'd been inside for hours and I wanted to feel the cold air on my skin. And I was young, and this was the West so the cold was dry and clear and you knew it wasn't going to last. The Chinook wasn't going to last either. I didn't know it in my wrapping days, but I would know it soon after. Soon there would be the Internet, and the big box stores, 9/11 and the recession that followed. In 2004, the Chinook closed its heavy wooden doors, 45 years to the day from its opening. There are other bookstores in downtown Colorado Springs now, but they rely—as most independent bookstores do—on Internet sales of new and used books, often through Amazon. They don't employ a staff of 26 or gross $2.5 million a year, as the Chinook once did. And surely there are still girls like me at William J. Palmer High School, although they no longer walk across the park to present themselves at the Chinook. I often wonder what it is they do instead, where they go to be known and needed. I wonder where they get that solid feeling. Christmas Eve was the gift wrappers' last day. The store opened at nine and closed at noon and for those three hours we never stopped wrapping. On Christmas Eve all our customers were men. We wrapped Word-A-Day calendars and enamel bookmarks and books that came with puzzles and finger puppets, books that were just barely books. Our feet ached and so did our fingers. And when, at five minutes past 12, the last customer was escorted out and the door locked behind him, everyone would give an exhausted cheer and Dick Noyes, the spry and white-haired owner of the Chinook who wore wide striped ties and crepe-soled Wallabees and called all the wrappers "babe," and "doll," would open a bottle of scotch and hand out Christmas bonuses. And us gift wrappers, who were too young to drink scotch and too shy to stand around without books to wrap, slowly hung up our aprons and collected our things, the last of the books we had bought with our just-expired employee discount, the Nalgene water bottles we kept on the shelf above the wrapping paper, our extra sweaters. We tucked our bonus envelopes into our backpacks, said our goodbyes, and left through the shipping room's back door, out into the alley where our older brothers were waiting in cars, ready to drive us home to Christmas. Image Credit: Pexels.
1. This is about Damascus, the city where I was born and raised. Today I live in London and my contact with Damascus is painful. I met a lovely old lady in our community allotment garden a couple of months ago. We had a nice chat about growing plants and growing children. My daughter was running around, her grandchildren too, we talked about the beautiful things in life. And then, in the conversation, I mentioned that I was Syrian. She looked at me and said: "Oh, you poor girl, I want to hug you and cry." It's important that the memory of a place survives the horror that overcomes it. So I find my Syrian voice in the sweet memories of a grand city. 2. I woke up that morning and my room was orange. It smelled of heaven. My mother had made apricot jam and poured it into big round silver steel pans, to sit in the sun, on the balcony outside my room. The sun was shining and it was hot. The sun was cooking the jam and infusing the air with its scent. I was born during apricot jam season. My mother was pregnant and due to give birth any minute. She had bought her usual 20 kilograms of klabi apricots—the only type you should make jam with—from the 30 varieties of apricots in the city. Meshmosh Klabi are only in season for one or two weeks, at the end of June or beginning of July. When they appear on the markets, you have to sieze your opportunity. They have red cheeks and orange flesh; they flip open and the stone pops out; they are dry and slightly bitter when raw. But when they become jam, they are royalty jam. People say you will never taste a better apricot jam than the one you taste in Damascus. On the morning of July 3, 1976, my mother deseeded the apricots, piled them up in a large pot, added some sugar and gently brought the pot to a boil. She poured the mix into large shallow pans and took them out into the sun to bask in its heat. She always said that was how they stayed golden bright and didn't go dark. The next morning, my mother went into labor and gave birth to a little girl in a city she would learn to love and to leave. 3. It’s July 2011 and I'm walking the streets of Damascus, my streets; nowhere else in the world have I taken ownership of the streets. The pavement and the dirt, it's all mine and no one can take it. The air smells of orange blossom and jasmine. It smells of onions and garlic frying up for lunch in every single house along my way. The air is so dry you can hear yourself breathe. I decide to go up the mountain of Qasioun. I hail a taxi, a yellow car with a driver wearing a printed shirt, polyester trousers, worn flip flops and a towel around his neck. He has a plastic bottle of water at arm's reach. All sorts of furry things are dangling in the interior of his car. Flashing "i love you" signs with little red lights, teddy bears, miniature triplet dogs sitting on the dashboard whose heads wiggle with the car’s movement; fuchsia feathers, heart-shaped pillows, a small Quran and prayer beads hanging from the rearview mirror. By the steering whel is a picture of a belly dancer with a lot of make up and glamorous oriental clothing, and a picture of the driver's children. The radio is on; it’s the woman with the sensual voice. It's a city of contrasts. I remember walking into a kinky lingerie shop in the old market. It was run by an old pious man. He was selling women's underwear with zippers and feathers and bright coloured flashing lights. You could clap and one pair of underwear would fall off, top and bottom. A friend of mine bought that one. It actually works. It falls off if you clap. It falls of if you whistle, too. There are fake birds and fake phones positioned strategically on the tiny pieces of lace, and the old man was explaining the quality of the product. He would tell me, "Ammo, these are very good, trust me, they work." How is it possible that a 70-year-old devout Muslim—this big, round, kind man—was advising me on kinky underwear? [millions_ad] 4. The driver of the taxi takes me up to the mountain, Qasioun. I get out and I look down at my city. It's hot and dry; a layer of sand and dust covers everything. The city lays at the foot of the mountain, spread out like a coffee stain. And beyond it, nothing. Endless land with nothing on it. The city came to life through the river, Barada. Today, Barada has almost dried out. There is no life without it. I locate the buildings I know, I locate our home, in the far east of the city on my left. I see flocks of pigeons circling above the roof tops, and the men and women who keep them. Wherever I am today, when I hear pigeons cooing, I feel I am home again. The real home. The first one. Night falls, the sky turns indigo and the city starts to twinkle from up there. Every green light represents a mosque. There are many, many green lights. The prayer sounds, Allahu Akbar, God is great, and resonates from as many mosques as I can hear where I am standing. The voices of the Damascus imams are divine. I go into a sort of trance as I hear, even now as I remember. And I am not Muslim. Everyone relates to the prayer of the imams in Damascus. Foreigners and locals are called alike, some for prayer, some for contemplation, and some just to hear the wave of magic coming through the air. My father studied economics and sat for a Ph.D. in Paris at the Sorbonne. He says that he wrote his whole thesis listening to a set of five tapes of a famous imam chanting the whole Quran. The timing of those five prayers every day are as meaningful as the call itself. Dawn, noon, afternoon, dusk, and nightfall. I don't know if I think that because I grew up in a place that marks those five moments in a day, or if it's a natural pattern with which we relate to the world around us, but I always pause. 5. It’s Friday, and that’s the only day off in the city. Men have brought their food and drink, chairs and mats, shisha pipes, wives and children, and have spread them out along the side of the roads, all the way to the top of the mountain. That road has been planted; it's the way to the president's palace, so it is always green and beautiful. People picnic on the side of the road for that reason—for a bit of green and fresh air. The women are veiled. By sunset, there is not one inch of grass free. Other people, those who can afford it, are in the cafes and restaurants dotted along the top of the mountain and overlooking the city. I catch a ride down back to the city’s beating heart. I feel so big on my way down, like I have taken it all into myself, this beautiful place and all its grace. 6. The cactus fruit appears on the streets in August. The prickly pear, or sabbara, as we call it. If you are going home in August after a night out, you have to stop for a few pieces of the fruit. Vendors set up their stands all over the city. They decorate them with carpets, plants, and lights. They are masters of cleaning, peeling, and offering the fruit free of prickles. The pears are cold and sweet, juicy and so satisfying on a hot night. I’m on my way home, and I’ve had a few prickly pears. I stop at the glass-blowing factory by the east door of the old city. The old city of Damascus had a wall surrounding it, and seven access points. I used to live close to Bab Sharki, the eastern door. And there, a small glass factory that you wouldn't notice walking by works 24/7 and only stops for a week twice a year, for the Eid holidays. The ovens melting the glass mix are never turned off; they would need too much time to reach the high temperature again if they were. So the men with big round cheeks take turns, all day and all night, at making sand glow and form, to become glass. They always have a glass pot of black tea sitting on the oven, and they always offer a small glass to whoever drops in. They usually won't talk to me, as I am a woman and they are men. They will kindly welcome me: "Hello sister, welcome," and that's it. The tiles on the floor are a beautiful geometric pattern as is often the case in the old houses of the city. But no matter how rich the house or elaborate the décor, no matter how intricate the floor tiles, there is always one tile that will be misplaced on purpose: perfection is for God. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Along the way, as I was helicoptered off Algonquin Mountain, wheeled into the Lake Placid ER, then driven by ambulance to Saranac Lake ER and wheeled into midnight surgery, the forest rangers, the nurses, the EMTs and doctors would ask what I did for a living. When I explained I was a writer, the response was often how at least I’ll be able to write about all this when it’s over. I certainly played the part of WRITER, reminding my husband again and again, when I was sprawled out on the trail and waiting to be rescued, to make sure my little green notebook and my pen went with me when I was helicoptered out. I kept this notebook beside me at all times, except for the surgery that would insert a metal rod and screws into my leg and ankle. I planned on recording my observations, the odd angles and discolorations of my leg, the various textures of pain, the bright personalities of the nurses, the sounds from the other hospital rooms, the kindnesses. But here’s a confession: I barely used that notebook. I have three measly pages to cover my first week of injury. My writer self, a previously eager observer of my life’s lows, appeared to be asleep or absent, cowering off in some corner of my mind. I’m still trying to understand why. Despite my lackluster notetaking, I can remember certain moments if I try. My nails digging into my husband’s arm and leaving marks. A stranger covering me with his rain jacket. How I couldn’t stop shaking. The helicopter circling over us, needing to burn off fuel, while the trees around us trembled and blew as if in a storm. I remember asking my husband to shoot me. I remember rising above the trees while strapped into a harness, and suddenly there was so much light from the setting sun. I intended to wave goodbye to my children but I was spinning the wrong way. But there are other moments that I can’t access. In particular, the time between when I was walking down a trail beside some rocks, not even a steep part, and I noticed a man to my lower left, and I was thinking, I do not feel like saying hello to this man, as I was tired of greeting people—then, somehow, I was on my back, and this kind man, the one I didn’t want to greet, was crouched next to me, explaining I’ve been hurt. That I was really hurt. I glanced at my leg, bent in angles that should have been impossible. Then I closed my eyes. Between those two moments, there is nothing. I want to know what my body was doing during that nothing time. More accurately, I want to be able to describe what my body was doing and what I was thinking and feeling. I wish someone was taking a video so I could see myself fall. It’s strange, as a writer, disorienting, to have moments, no matter how brief, unavailable to me. Did I slip? Stumble? Push myself off the rocks? Twist? Flail? Leap? Scream? Cry out? (Apparently the brain stops recording memories during traumatic events, focusing its resources instead on survival, due to increased adrenaline and noradrenaline production, says Scientific American.) I’m glad, of course, my brain stayed focused and I survived. But I still wish my writing self could have been an observer, just as I wish that same self could have been more present during the times of intense pain. When, for instance, the forest ranger was preparing to splint my leg without pain meds while my tibia was almost pushing through my skin. I needed to be splinted before I could be lifted up to the helicopter. “Ready?” the ranger asked. A quiet voice in my head was telling me to pay careful attention, but the voice was so muted, and then I began screaming, as the pain went beyond what was bearable. I went elsewhere, to a place I may never be able to describe, and there is some disappointment about visiting a place, however bleak, where there aren’t words. I am trying to write about my experience three months after the accident. One problem I keep encountering is the fact this was an accident, an awful twist of fate. I write awful but another problem is it wasn’t that bad, not when put into the context of greater suffering in the world. Yes, I felt intense pain while waiting for the helicopter. Yes, the waiting felt infinite but actually it was 2 hours. Yes, the splinting was intolerable, but that lasted no more than a minute. After that, I was rescued, saved, medicated, taken care of. My hospital room had a lakeside view with a loon! I know people have felt much worse, and been more frightened, for much longer. I know some people are never rescued. How can one’s pain be made more interesting? More complex? More relevant? Must pain be complex or interesting or relevant to warrant writing about? How does one write about a violence that has no perpetrator, no blame? Were I assaulted on the mountaintop, had someone thrown me down those rocks, there would be a villain, and presumably a motive, and therefore there would have been a clearer story to tell. But what happened was the trail was slippery, and I slipped. I can’t even blame my boots. I checked them later on. The treads were fine. Everybody was falling that day, my husband has reminded me. He fell moments before I did. A woman fell moments before him, slicing open her arm. At times, it seems I could sum up my accident in a sentence or two. Yet I can’t shake this need to continue writing about it. [millions_ad] The accident happened at the start of an annual family vacation. I was in no shape to drive home, so my initial two weeks of recovery were spent in the Adirondacks, on various beds and scenic benches. I expected I would get much reading and writing done. A mini-writing retreat, I thought! How nice. I made my husband download the stories I was working on to a laptop using the hospital Wi-Fi. I stocked my Kindle with non-fiction I had meant to read months ago. I had my pile of articles about global warming, police surveillance, that sort of thing. But even with time stretching in the way it does in hospitals—eternity was available, nothing was expected of me—any writerly impulse quickly evaporated. Reading non-fiction put me to sleep. Not a deep sleep, but a sleep lasting for only a few minutes. I’d wake up and doggedly read a few more paragraphs before nodding off. My folder of articles lay untouched on my bed. My notebook lay beside me. The laptop remained unopened. I stared at the wall more than I thought possible, the pain meds keeping boredom away. When a volunteer wheeled in what she called her “comfort cart,” I eagerly grabbed for the easy escape of People magazine. Perhaps it’s silly, after an injury, to become frustrated with one’s self for a lack of artistic interest in one’s situation. Perhaps the situation was simply not that interesting. Perhaps it’s okay I found more engagement with the amount of calories a celebrity consumes in a day. But I think there was something more going on, a collection of evidence, or a sinking feeling. The first book I was able to latch onto in the hospital was Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It’s a novel I come back to every year or two. I read it before I had my first child and thought, well this is rather showy and dramatic, isn’t it. After the birth of my first child, I read it again and wept. I don’t cry anymore at the ending, but I do find solace in its portrayal of an effective parental love and a useful suffering. The dad does manage to save his child in the end, after all. In the hospital setting, I found this novel’s bleakness to be reassuring, its descriptions of the decimated, impersonal, and brutal wilderness to be more accurate than the romantic description of trees I’ve encountered elsewhere. I would read the book, fall asleep several pages in, then wake and read more, and fall asleep, and cry because my leg hurt so much, take the pain meds, and read more. Read in this fragmented way, certain scenes stretched on practically forever. I think the father swimming out to the ship went on for most of one night. I must have reread certain parts, and I was reading so slowly. But I feel like this particular reading of the book was my truest reading, the most accurate. Perhaps suffering, no matter how pointless such suffering is, is the best state of mind when reading a book about suffering. I found solace in the idea that suffering can have a purpose, a goal. Even my suffering, I wondered? A purpose larger than the personal, I wondered? I carried my notebook with me everywhere while I used crutches. I carried it to a second visit to the Saranac Lake ER because my leg had turned a deep rich blue and swelled to an obscene size. “I’m turning into a blueberry. Like Violet Beauregarde!” I told my daughter, who patted me with alarm. I rarely wrote in the notebook. I just carried it, occasionally jotting down commandments from my doctors. Elevate. Ice. Rest. I took the notebook to the final appointment with my surgeon, whom I had fallen in love with. I say this in the most sincere, non-creepy way possible: here was a man who had put my leg back together. A man who had smiled at me with such kindness before the surgery, when I was very frightened, and afterwards, who moved my bandaged leg with great pride. It was like we had created something together. “Look at that!” he said with a little awe, moving my leg up and down. I don’t know how people cannot fall in love with their surgeons. I suppose there is a story waiting somewhere in that proclamation. My writer self eventually did wake up. Proudly, now, it waves around its updated list of things it can write about more accurately and personally: a mountain injury! A helicopter rescue! An ambulance ride! Being wheeled into a frigid operating room and hearing Pink Floyd! Going under for surgery! Metal implants in one’s leg! Becoming hysterical from pain while one’s children watched. The queasy loneliness of a hospital room at night. I could turn it all into a story, adding some kind of tension, or forcing something more to happen. Give the injured wife and her husband a history, perhaps a violent history. Or maybe the child could be the one injured, and the mother would have to watch her child in pain rather than watching her own pain. But part of me has become bored with reshaping the details of my life into a narrative with an exciting enough plot that also satisfies a need for completion and revelation by the story’s end. Part of me wants this experience to be enough as it was. I will get back almost everything that I lost. I’ll be able to walk without a limp. At some point, I should be able to run. My family will go back to the mountains and have a proper vacation. And there have been little gifts along the way. Reading returned to me in a fury once I went off opioids at the end of week two. When was the last time I had so much space to read since I was a child? The Executioner’s Song, Borne, Fever Dream, The Book of Joan, Lincoln in the Bardo, The Handmaid’s Tale, Against Depression. I had love affairs with each of these books. I read gratefully, whole-heartedly, without distraction, as I had nothing else I could do. I read through my insomnia, and I read while my leg was elevated and iced, and I read while doing my physical therapy exercises every three hours, and I read to my children while I rested, and I listened to the books as I hobbled around the block. What I won’t get back are those moments I can’t remember, the falling, the pain. Those are the parts, if I do tell this story someday in its completion, I will have to make up. Here are some of the ways my accident changed me. I will hike less joyfully next summer. I will hesitate on rocky trails. I will bring an emergency beacon and consider trip insurance with helicopter evacuation coverage. I may stop below the ridges of mountains rather than climb. I have lost my certainty that hiking up mountains has a point. What is the point? Gazing at them from a distance might be enough. I hope environmental descriptions in my writing will gain some kind of brutality, that I will say no to romanticism when it suggests itself, especially when the sun is setting on a scene. Because the mountain stood there while I screamed. Of course it did. And then my family, my husband and children, had to climb down it in the dark. Did I ever think nature had a heart? Yes, I suppose I did. Maybe this is the real loss or revelation. We talk so much about trying to save the natural world as if it is a living breathing person. It’s not. It’s still worth saving, but not because of its kindness. Photo courtesy of the author.
Out this week: A Hundred Small Lessons by Ashley Hay; The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories; and Insomniac Dreams by Vladimir Nabokov. For more on these and other new titles, go read our most recent book preview.
The post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. What is now recognized as the “first Thanksgiving” took place nearly 400 years ago, in 1621, when members of the Wampanoag tribe and Pilgrim settlers sat down together for a three-day feast. The Thanksgiving meal is still central to the occasion today, but we also connect it to a range of other associations—from football to potentially challenging conversations with family to the encroachment of Black Friday. There’s no doubt the holiday has changed. Yet, for some, the image of Native people has not. When Marcie Rendon was a child, the only representations she saw of her community were set in a distant past that had no bearing on her present reality. Her debut novel Murder on the Red River (Cinco Puntos Press), which was longlisted for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Award, tackles that issue head-on by introducing readers to a young Native woman who is very much an inhabitant of the 20th century. Renee “Cash” Blackbear is a 19-year-old farm laborer and pool shark who finds herself embroiled in a murder mystery. Having entered the foster system as a child, Cash has a long history with the local sheriff, who is happy to have her help investigating the death of an unfamiliar Native man. Désirée Zamorano wrote in the LA Review of Books: “Rendon, a member of the White Earth Anishinabe Nation, masterfully weaves two stories in a seamless, vivid narrative. The first is that of a dead Indian found stabbed in his chest without money or ID; the second is that of Cash’s life, and how she came to be a cue-stick-slinging farm hand, playing pool and sleeping with her married lover.” This is Rendon’s first novel, and her children’s book, Pow Wow Summer, was reprinted in 2014. She is a recipient of the Loft’s Inroads Writers of Color Award for Native Americans. Rendon generously agreed to talk with Bloom about Murder on the Red River and her writing process. Ericka Taylor: Are you a reader/fan of the murder mystery genre? Who are some of your influences in this genre? Marcie Rendon: Yes, I read murder mysteries, psychological thrillers, and action thrillers—what I call airport novels. I have been a longtime reader of Stephen King. In my opinion he is the ‘best’ storyteller. The other authors I gravitate to are John Sanford, Lee Child, and the Kellermans. After reading one book of Henning Mankell’s in his Wallander series, I went online and ordered them all and binge read them all. I love King as a storyteller: the first time I visited Maine I "remembered" being there and had to remind myself I only thought that because of reading King. Sanford’s books are easy to read, even while taking you on a roller coaster ride of murder and chaos. I think (though I don’t know because I’ve never talked to him) his writing is so good because he is a journalist. There isn’t a lot of "extra"—which I find time consuming and annoying—in his writing. I want the story. ET: Murder on the Red River is not a typical murder mystery in that Cash has access to clues and investigative tools unavailable to (or, at least not often used by) traditional law enforcement. She doesn’t only use her dreams and visions to guide her, but also eavesdrops on suspicious conversations and tails potential suspects. How did you decide when to apply the various skills Cash has at her disposal? MR: My writing process is character driven not "format" or "outline" driven so the story evolved as the character evolved. The skills Cash used were determined by the situation she found herself in. ET: What was most clear to you about the character Cash, then, when you started the novel? What traits and experiences evolved as you wrote? Did you “discover” things about her as you wrote? If so, anything surprising? MR: Cash, the character that appeared was, and continues to be, very compelling and insistent on where the story is going. There is the tough bar girl but underneath all that is the vulnerable young woman who survived a lot growing up. She is very smart, both intellectually and with common sense. When I re-read parts of the book I notice how detached she is from much of the heartbreak in her life. In today’s world she would be diagnosed with PTSD. ET: Place is prominent in the novel, and you really ground the reader in both the history and geography of the region. The only chapter headings in the book refer to the setting, based first in Fargo on the North Dakota side of the Red River and then in Moorhead on the Minnesota side. The Red Lake Reservation is also a key location. Could you tell us about your decision to make place central to the book and what you were hoping it would evoke? MR: I grew up on the edges of the White Earth Reservation, in and around the Red River Valley, so it is country and landscape that is home to me and is familiar to me. As Native people we have never left our homeland, we are home—so place is our experience on this continent. We know who we are, and where we are from. We are not newcomers to the idea that the Earth is a living entity. It makes sense that in my writing the land is as much a character as the human characters. Prior to European contact, the state lines we know as they exist in the United States did not exist in Native worldview. I believe the same is true for many farmers. They farm the land and have a relationship with the land and the weather and changing seasons. The place settings of North Dakota side and Minnesota side of the Red River were included to help the reader understand the current demarcation between the two states, the two cities of Fargo-Moorhead and the Red River as the dividing line. ET: Are there also metaphorical/thematic ideas embodied in that dividing line? MR: As always, one can conjecture the divisions and boundaries that exist because of gender, class, and race. There are lines that we can use to divide us or there are rivers and fields of life that sustain us all. I think as humans we need to decide which is important to us—the divisions or the sustenance. ET: When you set out to create this mystery, did you already know whodunit, or was that something you discovered through the writing process? MR: I knew at the beginning that it was a non-Native person who did the killing. I learned as I wrote the number of men involved in the situation and their reason for doing so. ET: Can you say more about that, i.e. the murderer was a “type” of person before an actual person with motives—what was your interest in establishing that from the outset? MR: This story called for this “type” of person to have done the dirty deed. In another story, it could easily be the other way around; or another type of person completely; i.e. a woman killing a man. This story just happened to call for this particular situation. I have a short story that will be published in an upcoming Sisters In Crime anthology here in Minnesota. The murderer in that story is a young, pre-teen, Native girl. I guess for me it all depends on where the muse takes me or asks to be taken. ET: Cash suffered the horror of being raised in foster care with white families who saw her not as a child, but as free labor. How much did exploring that phenomenon, which shifted a bit with the 1978 passing of the Indian Child Welfare Law, shape the timeframe (1970s) in which you set the story? MR: Cash is the one who set the time and place for the story to occur. I, as a Native writer, was not exploring the phenomenon of foster care when I was writing. I was just writing a story, what to my mind was a murder mystery. It was during the editing process when my editor started asking questions about the foster care story in the background that I also realized, yes, that story was there. It is a story that is so much a fabric of the existence of Native people during that time in history that I wasn’t even aware it was something I was writing about. This was “normal” during that time. ET: Would you say that the editorial process made you more “audience aware”? And if so, how else did that awareness shape the editing/revision process. MR: In the editing process I became more cognizant of cultural differences, knowledge bases, and perceptions. Years ago I wrote a play about Sacajawea. During the research necessary for the writing of that play I realized that Sacajawea never had her story told. The story that is told is Lewis and Clark’s story—and as white men who had a written language, everything that has been written about Sacajawea has been written from their white, male perception, not from the mind and heart of a 12 year old girl-child, stolen, raped, beaten and then used as bait to cross the continent. We would know a totally different version of her story if She had had a written language, a way to record Her story. All that to say . . . as my wonderful editor Lee Byrd worked with me, she was able to direct me to places where I was writing from a Native-centric worldview that not all non-Native people have been exposed to, and there were places to expand a bit so the non-Native reader would have a better understanding of the overall story. ET: Do you generally think about or concern yourself with who you’re writing for? MR: My primary goal as an Ojibwe woman writer is to create mirrors for my people. My hope is that I am writing stories that everyone can enjoy. ET: Although Cash is a work of fiction, she, like her creator, has an interest in poetry. Are there any other similarities that you and Cash share? MR: I used to shoot pool, love shooting pool. And as mentioned previously, I grew up in the Red River Valley. ET: Is it as uncommon as it seems in the novel for a woman to be so good at and involved in pool culture where you grew up? MR: I think in the Native community there are fewer gender stereotypes. Women shoot pool, play baseball or softball. There are a good handful of Native American boxers. In this story Cash is the pool shark. If Cash spent more time on any of the nearby reservations I am sure she would encounter other Native women who would give her a run for her money at the tables. ET: You’ve talked about the importance of making sure Native youth see current Native images, rather than only seeing reflections of themselves that exist in the past. How much does that desire shape your writing projects? Were you exposed to literary images of present-day Native Americans in your youth? MR: As a child, it was next to impossible to find a book that featured Native people who were not the stereotypical Indians on the Plains, riding horseback and wearing a headdress. And that is who was featured in movies and on TV. With the exception of learning false stories about Pocahontas and Sacajawea in Social Studies classes Native women weren’t mentioned at all. So one of my primary goals in all my writing is to create mirrors for Native people to see themselves. ET: In addition to being a novelist, you’re also a poet, playwright, and author of children’s books. Do you feel more drawn to one form over another? MR: I do write a lot of poetry and someday will find a publisher for a book of poems. To date most are in various anthologies featuring Native women poets. I do wish I had more time to devote to writing plays. To see characters brought to life on stage is very fulfilling. But I love to write—I love the stringing of words together to create image, story, and life. ET: Could you tell us a bit about your writing process? Do you have an established routine where you write at a certain time every day or is it more catch as catch can? Do you prefer to write by hand or on a computer? MR: In this day and age, I only write at the computer. I am contemplating, but haven’t tried it yet, dictating into the computer to see if that would be a faster process than my fingers. When I am deep, mentally deep, into a story, I aim for somewhere between 1000 and 2000 words a day. I often will stop writing mid-sentence. In Stephen King's book On Writing, he talks about an author who wrote for exactly 30 minutes every day and then stopped—even if in the middle of a sentence. This works for me. I can pick up the idea where I left off. And I write on that story, book, article until I’m finished, or feel like I’m finished with it. I know authors who have a favorite time of the day to write. I think because I have spent so much time as a freelancer, doing work on deadlines, I no longer have a “favorite” time to write. I do need quiet. No TV, no radio, no lawnmower next door. And I absolutely love the opportunity to leave my home for two to three weeks, go to an apartment or cabin away from everyone I know and everything that can pull at my attention; and then I can really crank out the work. ET: Our readers are especially interested in writers who publish their first books after the age of 40. You’ve said you especially encourage other Native writers and writers of color to follow their passions when they emerge and not wait as long as you did to become a writer. You, for example, initially thought you were going to be a therapist. Could you tell us a bit about your professional journey and what compelled you to pursue writing? MR: I have been writing since I learned how to write. But no one ever told me that I could make a living as a writer, or that writing was a legitimate career choice. At the time when I was going to college we were told to get degrees in law, medicine, social work or teaching so that we could “go back home and work for our people.” So I got a degree in Criminal Justice (pre-law) and American Indian Studies and worked for years in Native prison programs and worked as a therapist. And I would write short stories, poems, etc., and stuff them in a drawer. I reached a point where I said to myself, “What I really want to do is write” and I set out to do that. After a year of writing I thought, “I have three children, I better make some money at this.” And that is when I set out to get paid to do writing. I have supported my family since 1991 on my writing. This has included children’s books, writing-work for hire, newspaper journalism, plays, poems, some teaching of writing. Basically, any or all writing that would pay the bills. We need to tell our stories—because if we don’t tell our stories our grandchildren and great-grandchildren are going to read stories written by others about us—and the nuances of who we really are as a people will be lost in the translation. What I would say to folks over 40 – It is never too late, never. If you have a story inside you burning to be written, write it! And then submit, and submit and submit. Don’t obsess about rejection or perfection—just write and submit. To quote my dear friend and author Aurora Levins Morales, “…my mother encouraged me, advising me to not be perfectionist, and go ahead and write a B book instead of an A+.” Take those risks, never tell yourself no, or that it is too late, just get at it. ET: Given your own journey, are you involved in mentoring young writers at all? MR: I teach poetry in the county jails in the metro area here in the Twin Cities. About four to six times a year, a writing partner and myself go into the county jails for two weeks, every evening and teach poetry and help the women create a book of their work. That is the most direct, hands on mentoring I do. The other is mostly encouraging folks to write and to seek publication. I always share writing opportunities and information about them with other aspiring Native writers and women writers. ET: What writing are you working on now? MR: I am working on the second Cash book, a teen book, and hopefully will get to finish my play about a serial killer very soon.
You are a tourist to Canada in the season of book awards and writers’ festivals. You have timed it this way. You are a literary tourist, or a book lover, at least. The kind of traveller who seeks out immersive cultural experiences. Wherever you go, you do your homework. It is a trip to Anglophone Canada, so you have brushed up on your English (which was pretty good to begin with). You study maps. You read up on the history, current events, and controversies. And now you will go deeper. You are looking for literature in situ. You will talk with some Canadian readers, meet some Canadian authors, perhaps. You will ask big questions and really get inside the soul of this country. For the most part you get what you came for. You find some good reads. Books you will take home and really savor. You will get inside the Canadian experience, for sure. You find an enticing rural family saga. Some nice books about identity—quite a few. And some of the anxieties-of-the-bourgeoisie style books you find so charming. They seem beautifully written, and you look forward to making time for all of them. So you are satisfied—but not satiated. There is something else you are looking for. Another kind of story, by another kind of author. A dissident novel, by a dissident author. An overt challenge to complacency—or to the state, even. All throughout this journey you have found it hard not to think of a particular novel—not the one you are seeking, but one that serves as analogue for your experience in Canada. And it isn’t even a Canadian novel, perhaps not even one that could be written by a Canadian—as you have lately, tentatively, concluded. Time and time again, you are reminded of Event Factory, by the American author Renee Gladman. It is a strange and challenging book, and you think of it because it seems to depict the situation in which you find yourself as a literary tourist. Event Factory takes place in the fictional city of Ravicka, and its protagonist—just like you—is a visitor from afar, with a goal to immerse herself in the local culture. Like you, she has studied the host society and language and is ready to converse with the locals. But immersion proves elusive. Among a variety of other things, she is seeking—just like you—an important text and its author. It is not, in her case, a dissident text, but a book nonetheless. And like the book you seek, it proves elusive. Are the locals being evasive in response to her enquiries? Or is it that she misses some component of the language to make her desires understood? It is not clear which. Your trip to Canada feels much the same way. You have asked for, but still not found, your dissident novel by a dissident author. You are not sure why. Certain events in this country—contentions, protests, and catastrophes of the past decade—have not escaped your notice. But they seem not to have found their way into the literature; or rather, they haven’t found their way into the novels you see on short lists or book festival display tables, anyway. What you are looking for is something edgy. Something from the counterculture. About someone blocking a pipeline through unceded territory, maybe. From anyone who writes in opposition to power, or writes about people who take chances. You ask around, and a few suggestions come up—quite a few, actually. They are all novels by Canadian authors, to be sure. But they are about people taking chances in other countries. No—that’s not what you’re looking for, you say. You want books about people taking chances in this country. In Canada. You are directed to some nonfiction titles, but that’s not what you want, either. You say it has to be a novel. A creatively imagined, perhaps contrarian response to whatever turmoil has happened in this country. [millions_ad] You try to be as specific as possible. You would be happy with some critical satire, at least. Each country surely must have its satirists. A Kurt Vonnegut, or a Michel Houellebecq—someone taking liberties at the expense of his own countrymen. Vonnegut gets some understanding nods, but it seems few have heard of Houellebecq. So you tell your Canadian interlocutors that even an earnest, disgruntled Marxist will do. Doesn’t every nation have one of those? A Takiji Kobayashi, for example. Someone taking on their own society in their own present age—as Kobayashi did, a lone voice against Japan’s paramilitary intelligence service. Alas, no one has heard of Kobayashi. It is hard to convey a common point of reference. Eventually you find a bookseller advertising arcane knowledge of even the most obscure titles, au courant of the contemporary novel. By this point you are desperate, so you spill your guts. You know what’s been going on in this country, you say. You have been following events. That man, you say. That last prime minister. The one who wanted to sabotage all the climate negotiations. Yes, she knows about him. And the new one, who lobbied to send the oil down south. She knows about him, too. And that day—the day when 900 protesters were jailed in a single scoop. And the people who turned off the pipeline valves. The grandmother who went to jail. Those people up north—First Nations people—the ones crammed into shacks who can’t get clean drinking water. These are all dramatic stories, are they not? Surely they must have made their way into Canada’s novels. The bookseller hears you out, but remains silent. She looks pensive, but you can’t read in what way. Perhaps she is thinking about a book. Or perhaps she is insulted that all you seem interested in is Canada’s dirty laundry. So you tell her you like that other stuff, too—the family sagas, the identity stories, the midlife crisis stories. It’s all great stuff, you say. But you want to see the other side of Canada, too—through another kind of Canadian novel. The dissident novel. Perhaps, you venture, there could be a Canadian Dostoyevsky. A political risk taker. You tell her you imagine there must be at least one Canadian novelist like that. There must be someone like that right now, all things considered. The bookseller maintains her reticence, and finally you say this: “I am a professor of dissident literature.” It is a lie, but how else can you encourage her to bring forth the novel you desire? “My interest is purely academic,” you say. “In every country I visit, I seek out dissident novels, dissident writers. That is all. I have no political motive. Simply, I wish to return home with a research sample—with an example of the dissident Canadian novel. Or having had a conversation with a dissident Canadian novelist.” The bookseller asks whether, because you mentioned Dostoyevsky, you would like a crime novel. And so you leave her shop empty-handed. And soon you leave Canada, too—on your scheduled return flight home. Perhaps if you had had more time, you think, you might have found that obscure, dissident novel. And you wonder if it was some fault of your English—your lack of facility with the Canadian dialect—that prevented you from finding it. Or was it that the Canadians you met were being evasive? Had you insulted their national pride by asking for some contrarian—perhaps, in their eyes, “anti-Canadian”—literature? Or could it be that no such book, that no such author exists in Canada? It would be incredible, you think, that such a thing could be true. It would be very strange, indeed. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
As I think is the case for most writers born after 1980, the first outlets to publish my work were online. To be more specific, they were blogs—online spaces that valued ideas and abstraction over narrative and detail. My writing followed an outline similar to the five-paragraph essay: here’s what I’m trying to communicate, here’s how it affects you, here’s how you should respond. I am grateful for these online outlets: they gave me deadlines and creative autonomy and a reason to write outside of the college classroom where I took my first creative writing courses or, later, my nine-to-five office job. But writing for the Internet did not teach me about concreteness or precision. It taught me to come up with an argument and explicate, maybe with a brief anecdote to catch the reader’s interest. The actual substance of the material world rarely made an appearance. I learned about particularity from literature. Books reward attention to detail by virtue of being physical objects. You can flip to the end of a novel if you like, but it feels like cheating—much more than skimming an online article, index finger flicking across the mouse. Books aren’t designed to seize the reader with wild titles or to funnel her through a story using lists and bite-sized sections. They are designed to construct worlds furnished with smells and objects and memories, and this construction requires the accumulation of concrete and specific building blocks. In Brown: the Last Discovery of America Richard Rodriguez writes, "Literature flows to the particular, the mundane, the greasiness of paper, the taste of warm beer, the smell of onion or quince...Literature cannot by this impulse betray the grandeur of its subject—there is only one subject: What it feels like to be alive. Nothing is irrelevant. Nothing is typical.” Durga Chew-Bose’s first essay collection, Too Much and Not the Mood, is a ranging, intricate work crowded with lush detail. Her prose blends commentary on pop culture with the precision of literature. It flows to the particular, just as Rodriguez suggests literature should. Nothing is irrelevant: not the examination of an emoji, not Allen Iverson’s voice, not a “lathery shade of peach” in a painting at the Met. Chew-Bose is meticulous in recording what it feels like to be alive, down to the most unassuming observations: “A poorly painted wall. Its cracks. The ceiling fan’s chop. A woman on the C train pulling her ponytail through its tie, not once or twice, but six times.” Not only does Chew-Bose welcome life’s minutiae into her writing, she delights in it, a fact that lends even her densest and most tangential prose charm. No object or observation is too mundane to elicit wonder. Under her attention, there’s awe to be drawn from a scene in The Godfather or the emotional power of cheap pop songs, the kind with “nowhere lyrics that repeat one word over and over like a hymn written in neon-tube lighting.” That is, songs that send us singing down the freeway, gleefully unabashed and willing to roll the windows down even in a drizzle. (Or maybe that’s just me.) Too Much and Not the Mood celebrates the minute experiences that heighten our capacity for wonder. The book reminded me that an event, a trip, or a day is the sum of its concrete parts, a compilation of every miniature, material detail: the bricks that form a home. Under Chew-Bose’s keen-eyed observation, a wedding is not a wedding in the abstract sense of the word; it is the glimpse of gold sandals under a dress, a chilled red wine, “sequined strings of twinkle lights blurring with purple bougainvillea vines,” desert mountains turning jewel tones, and cake abandoned on plates while guests dance. [millions_ad] I read Too Much and Not the Mood in my final residency of graduate school. I was leaving behind two years of immersion in language, and my preemptive nostalgia meant paying closer attention than usual to my surroundings and sensations: the spike of sage in the air, the rock-salt rim of a margarita, a poem recited aloud as trees waved in agreement outside the window. I read Chew-Bose’s essays at a courtyard table in Santa Fe as thunderstorms rolled in and out and rain speckled the book cover and my cohort and I reached across one other for snacks and hummed over words. That’s what her writing did for me: it made me hum in recognition. Even though her particulars are not mine, she reports them with an accuracy that generates recognition. They are specific enough to jolt my own memories. When she writes that she is happiest “barefoot in [my parents’] home eating sliced fruit,” I felt my parents’ hardwood kitchen floor under my feet and tasted crescents of peach, placed one after another onto my tongue. That is the essence of childhood summers for me, and the essence of what I’ve left behind in becoming an adult: the backyard in Santa Barbara, a warm towel under my stomach as I lay in the grass reading a library book, cherries or a peach within reach. I imagine Chew-Bose’s wonder ignites a similar emotion in most readers, if not through recognition than purely through the aesthetics of her language. Take this passage: “Palm trees pipe my sense of awe into its purest form. Puppies asleep on their sides, lattice piecrusts, and women in perfectly tailored pantsuits generate a similar response. So does young Al Pacino. ...Those young Pacino eyes capsize me.” That specificity of example and those pitch-perfect verbs—pipe, capsize—supply plenty of wonder on their own. Reading Too Much and Not the Mood reminded me I could write about these things—nostalgia for my parent’s kitchen, lattice piecrusts, cheap pop music—and not only that, but by honing in on the specifics of my own life, I could reach through the screen or the page and speak to the specifics of a stranger’s life. Chew-Bose’s zeroing-in on the miniature proves that experiencing beauty often requires paying close attention. Which is perhaps good advice for writing as much as for life. “Thinking of someone the way he was is really just another way of writing,” Chew-Bose asserts in the opening, sprawling essay “Heart Museum.” “Thinking about someone I was once in love with—how he’d peel an orange and hand me a slice or how is white T-shirt would peek out from under his gray sweatshirt. … Thinking about that crescent of white cotton is a version of writing.” Too Much and Not the Mood can be read as a manual for how to write: pay close attention, and write about what captures. A number of the essays in Too Much and Not the Mood first appeared in online publications like The Hairpin. I’m thankful that Chew-Bose is one of many writers restoring particularity to the Internet’s prose, as well as delight. A phrase like “a dragon fruit’s Dalmatian-speckled insides” is a reprieve, pointing me back to the tactile, intricate world outside my book or screen. Chew-Bose’s talent is to hold up objects to the light so they refract, expanding beyond their material existence—the concrete speaking to abstract concepts of affection, nostalgia, loss, and wonder. There’s something mischievous about giving attention to these objects, if only because they’re so likely to go unnoticed. In her exactitude, Chew-Bose points out what many of us miss: the glints, the one-offs, the seconds that normally scurry past. Look there, her writing seems to say. There it is—pay attention.