In her debut short story collection, Half Gods, Akil Kumarasamy takes readers into the lives of a multigenerational Sri Lankan Tamil family, tracing their history from the plantations of what was then the British colony of Ceylon to the beaches of the Jersey Shore. Across 10 interconnected stories, Kumarasamy explores what it means to be made to feel like a foreigner in one’s own country, a theme made all the more affecting by recent events. When the British left Ceylon in 1948, independence from the British Empire had been secured through relatively peaceful means. The newly free Dominion of Ceylon entered the world with a number of advantages, including representative democratic institutions that were expected to provide stability and continuity. But the seeds of conflict between the majority Sinhalese (who made up roughly two-thirds of the island's population) and the minority Tamils were nourished by an increasingly fervent nationalism that had subtly infiltrated the push for independence. The British had long practiced the policy of “divide and rule” in its overseas colonies, and Ceylon was no exception. During the colonial period, the British set themselves up in the northern, Tamil-dominated region of the island. Access to British educational institutions and employment opportunities in the colonial government allowed Tamils to assert a level of power and influence that belied their minority status. This inflamed Sinhalese resentment; while the two groups had long been separated by their languages and religion, they were now, for the first time, separated by an ever-widening economic inequality. In “New World,” Kumarasamy shows the departure of British authorities through the eyes of an Indian Tamil woman working on a tea plantation. It’s here that we get our first long look at Muthulingham Padmanathan, or Muthu, the patriarch of the family around which Half Gods is centered. Here he is a schoolboy, the son of the owner of the plantation’s company store. His father, Mr. Padmanathan, and Mr. Balakumar, the stern overseer of the plantation, take great pains to distinguish themselves from the laborers; though they are all Tamil, the laborers are descended from Indian immigrants rather than native-born Ceylon Tamils. “He was Tamil too,” the narrator says about Muthu’s father, “but we didn’t call him brother, and after we paid, he whispered about us, called us Indian coolies. None of us had ever visited India, but he didn’t care about those details.” Mr. Padmanathan and Mr. Balakumar adopt the habits and manners of the departed British, doling out beatings and adopting the Western style of dress. “We all remembered Mr. Balakumar weeping as Sir William drove away,” the narrator recalls, “but we could not tell if it was from sadness or joy as he hugged the blue lapels of the suit jacket Sir William left for him.” The new world the plantation workers hoped for, in the end, differed little from the old one. Paradoxically, while the British presence on the island exacerbated ethnic tensions that had previously been virtually nonexistent, it also cloaked them and held them at bay. Once they left, Sinhalese politicians saw much to gain in stoking anti-Tamil sentiment and quickly moved to take advantage. In 1949, Indian Tamils were stripped of their citizenship in an effort to ensure a Sinhalese majority in the government. In 1956, passage of the “Sinhala Only” Act mandated that all government business would be conducted in the Sinhala language, effectively expelling Tamils from civil service. It was a transparently cynical move; “I have never found anything to excite the people in quite the way this language issue does,” said Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike. In 1972, the name of the country was changed from Ceylon (believed to originate from an archaic Tamil word and applied to the island by European colonizers) to Sri Lanka. As the government wrote their second-class status into law, the Tamil people increasingly became the target of violence from people emboldened by the bigotry of their leaders. With no opportunity for legal or governmental redress and harried by recurring pogroms, some Tamils turned to what they felt was their only option—violence. In 1983, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, commonly known as the Tamil Tigers), a militant group later labeled a terrorist organization by 32 countries, launched a campaign of military assaults, assassinations and suicide bombings against the government. The resulting civil war lasted for 26 years and killed over 100,000 people before government forces finally defeated the Tigers in 2009. More than 800,000 people were displaced, with many fleeing the country as refugees to India, the United Kingdom, and the United States. In “A Story of Happiness,” a now-adult Muthu seeks asylum at the U.S. embassy with his daughter, Nalini, following the murder of his wife and two sons at the hands of Sinhalese in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital. He recounts the story of his country’s downward spiral frankly, step by step, interspersed with short snippets of a poetic fable that Nalini has written for school three years after their escape, when they are settled in New Jersey. It’s a remarkable story, part history lesson, part emotional journey, and Kumarasamy balances each part well, helping readers unfamiliar with the events in Sri Lanka get a foothold while still maintaining momentum in the narrative with her graceful prose. When the Padmanathans reach the United States, Kumarasamy uses Nalini and her sons, the U.S.-born Arjun and Karna, to illustrate the challenges faced by first- and second-generation immigrant families, particularly those who don’t fit neatly into the boxes that their new countrymen are inclined to sort them into. “You are a convenience store owner, a taxi driver, a doctor, a terrorist, an IT worker, an exchange student,” Karna muses. “An Egyptian, a Pakistani, a Trinidadian, an Indian. You wear your skin like it’s something borrowed, not owned.” While the tug-of-war between Muthu’s longing for his lost homeland and Arjun and Karna’s coming of age in their new one drive much of the action, Kumarasamy makes Nalini the heart of the book with two beautifully vivid stories, “When We Were Children” and “The Butcher.” The first recounts her affair with her husband’s brother, Dilraj; the second is told from the perspective of Marlon, a lonely Angolan-Botswanan butcher who is drawn toward Nalini’s warmth and friendliness. Kumarasamy depicts the affair with Dilraj not as torrid but rather as desperate, an encounter between two lost innocents seeking comfort. “She had thought it was their grief that led them to kiss in the convenience store, their clothes still smelling of seawater and ash, but it was a human-shaped void, and standing at the edge, they had both wanted a closer look,” she writes. “When he held her, he was cautious not to give her pain and from his tenderness, she felt certainty in how their bodies progressed, each limb entwining in accord.” Kumarasamy’s writing is lush and evocative, capable of wresting beauty from sadness and finding slivers of hope amidst great tragedy. Though the stories in Half Gods are rooted in a conflict that began decades ago and on the other side of the world, many of its themes are startlingly relevant to our current situation in the U.S.: politicians exploiting ethnic tensions, lacking either the vision to see where such acts would lead or the empathy to care; the suppression of votes, the narrowing of citizenship, and the weaponization of government institutions; a refugee seeking asylum with his child, their fates in the hands of distracted bureaucrats and petty tyrants. Akil Kumarasamy has written a book for our time and our place, showing us that others have been down this road before and warning us where we might end up if we aren’t vigilant.
Kingsley Amis is best remembered today as the author of comic novels—perhaps even the pre-eminent writer in that genre during the second half of the 20th century. But you would hardly guess it if you looked just at his output from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s. This was Kingsley Amis’s midlife crisis, and it showed up in the strangest sort of way. Most comedians have a secret hankering for tragedy. But not Kingsley Amis. He was now determined to aim low, not high. His new plan involved a full-fledged assault on genre fiction in every one of its manifestations. In The Anti-Death League (1966) he embraced science fiction, and in The Green Man (1969) he delivered a horror story about ghosts haunting a country inn. The Riverside Villas Murder (1973) is an old-school British detective story, while The Alteration (1976) is an alternative history about England in a world that had never experienced the Reformation. All this happened in the aftermath of Amis’s 1965 divorce from Hilary Ann Bardwell after more than 15 years of marriage. Amis was trying to make a new start with second wife Elizabeth Jane Howard, a marriage also destined for acrimony and eventual divorce. He was under severe financial pressure and gaining weight during this period—while also gaining a reputation as a very heavy drinker. In the words of his biographer Zachary Leader, Amis had started treating alcohol as a “a hobby or interest, like jazz or science fiction.” Alexander Waugh would later claim that you could tell Amis had a serious drinking problem just by looking at photos of him from his late middle age onward—travails indicated by a “resplendent sheen on his forehead” which reflected a kind of boozer’s sweat, and a bewildered and aggressive demeanor known as a “Scotch gaze” to those familiar with the facial expressions of patrons leaving the bar at closing time. Other aging males in this situation would solve their midlife crisis by buying a fancy sports car, but Amis didn’t know how to drive. So instead he turned to James Bond. Agent 007 was truly the right hero for the right author, a stylish gent who could save the world, meet a deadline, and still not miss cocktail hour. If Bond could defeat SPECTRE and SMERSH, surely he could help a 40-something bloke get back on his feet again? Thus began Amis’s most ambitious genre gambit from this period, his 1968 spy novel Colonel Sun. Using the pseudonym Robert Markham, Amis had now shifted allegiances from Lucky Jim Dixon to the more debonair James Bond. This must have seemed like a huge opportunity at the time. Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, had died in 1964 at the very moment when the franchise was taking off. The film Goldfinger, released almost exactly a month after the author’s fatal heart attack at age 56, made it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the fastest-grossing movie to date. The film, shot for a budget of just $3 million, went on to earn $125 million at the box office—the biggest moneymaker of the year. After Fleming’s death, Amis had a legitimate opportunity to step into the driver’s seat of the hottest genre property of the era. “I do expect to make quite a lot of money out of the venture,” Amis admitted in a 1968 article for The Observer. I’m hardly surprised. Ian Fleming ranks as the highest-earning British crime-fiction writer of all time, and his estate collected royalties on the sales of a staggering 60 million books during the two years following the author’s death. Amis only needed to hold on to this installed base of James Bond fans to ensure a life of wealth and luxury. But Amis also ardently defended the move on its purely literary merits. A few years earlier, Amis had responded to criticisms of Fleming’s Thunderball with one of the most cogent arguments ever made for the worthiness of escapist fiction. “I think wish fulfillment is a common and normal human activity…No adult ought to feel like an adult all the time.” Even if the Bond novels simply served as a means of compensating for adolescent inferiority complexes, they would be “praiseworthy rather than blameworthy on that ground.” This revealing comment from 1965 was made at the very outset of Amis’s plunge into genre fiction. He clearly felt that no apologies need be made for this choice, which could have unintended benefits for the psychic health of Britain’s youth. Yet there’s some heavy irony in the fact that Ian Fleming himself created the character of James Bond at the outset of a midlife crisis of his own. And he defended his decision in even more crass terms than did Amis. In 1962, in his treatise on “How to Write a Thriller,” Fleming admitted to inherent laziness and claimed that his secret to success was simply churning out 2,000 words per day and not thinking too much about it. “I never correct anything and I never go back to what I have written,” Fleming boasted. “If you once look back, you are lost. How could you have written this drivel?” Above all, Fleming cautioned against “introspection and self-criticism.” If you give in to those, “you will be lucky if you write 500 words a day and you will be disgusted with them into the bargain.” Could Kingsley Amis really follow in the footsteps of an author with such an untutored technique? Could the droll humorist behind Lucky Jim and One Fat Englishman—and one of the most pleasing prose stylists of the post-WWII literary world—really match the snap, flash, and slapdash approach of Ian Fleming, a man who learned how to write by drafting memorandums for British Naval Intelligence? Certainly Amis pared down his writing style for this project. He makes no attempt to draw on his nonpareil skill in comic fiction—a strange decision, given the successful moments of dark humor starting to show up in the successful James Bond movies around this same time. There’s hardly a metaphor in sight in these pages, nothing highbrow or poetic—with the strange exception of recurring parallels with the myth of Theseus inserted into Colonel Sun, a plot twist that would never have come from the pen of Mr. Fleming. Amis, in other words, took great pains to imitate the Bond formula, or at least is superficial trappings. We know for a fact that he studied Fleming’s work with care and took copious notes. (For example, on the jacket of one Bond book, Amis wrote: “B. smiles 13 times by p. 165.”) And in many passages, he comes up with a reasonable facsimile of the original. But in many other respects, the James Bond in these pages is unrecognizable. In the first big fight scene, Bond actually runs away from his attackers. In two other key confrontations, Bond comes up a duffer, incapable of effective action and forced to rely on his amateur associates to save him from sure death. He doesn’t even remember to use the fancy gadgets given him by Q at the outset of the story—in fact, James Bond’s most high-tech weapon in the decisive battle here is a knife. Above all, our superspy 007 shows himself susceptible to “introspection and self-criticism”—the two qualities most despised by Ian Fleming. In other regards, Amis actually manages to surpass Fleming. His James Bond savors his booze like a connoisseur and never settles for a boring martini, shaken, not stirred. Amis’s sense of setting and landscape is outstanding, and the reader can tell that he carefully scouted out the Greek locations that serve as the backdrop for most of Colonel Sun. The psychological aspects of the story are deft and convincing, and they reveal a protagonist with a high degree of poise and self-awareness. In other words, James Bond, in these pages, bears a striking resemblance to Kingsley Amis. Or at least to a somewhat improved Mr. Amis, as he might have preferred to see himself in his 40s. Yes, genre fiction is a kind of wish fulfillment. Alas, this was not the formula that James Bond fans were looking for back in 1968. Colonel Sun sold reasonably well but not at the level of an Ian Fleming book. Even today, after 26 Bond movies, no one has tried to turn Amis’s effort into a film. And for good reason—this story isn’t especially cinematic and skips over the very elements that fans have come to love most in 007 films: outrageous exploits, flippant attitudes, and super-duper spy equipment. The great oddity is that Kingsley Amis was perfectly well-equipped to bring those ingredients into the story. His mistake was to base his approach on the Ian Fleming novels rather than the even more successful Sean Connery movies that might have nudged him into a different direction. Instead, Amis came up with a protagonist as dry as those famous shaken martinis. But there was one silver lining to this clouded outcome. Amis gave up spy fiction and soon returned to his forte, the comic novel. In 1986, he even won the Booker Prize for The Old Devils—beating out Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in the process. By this point, Amis had settled into the role of the irritable and beloved curmudgeon. It wasn’t quite like being a superspy—or even the author of a superspy bestseller—but it was the best possible typecasting: the part Amis was always really meant to play. Image: Flickr/Tom Woodward
At 4:45 a.m., Ibrahim Ahmad’s alarm clock began pouring out the first bars of Leonard Cohen’s “Lullaby”—“Sleep, baby, sleep. The day’s on the run. The wind in the trees is talking in tongues…” With this bit of counterintuitive programming, another long day in the life of an independent publisher had begun. After a quick breakfast and an industrial-strength quadruple espresso, Ahmad and his wife, Cassie Carothers, left their home in exurban Yorktown Heights, N.Y., and boarded a train that would carry them from the northern fringe of Cheever country to Grand Central Terminal in midtown Manhattan. For many of their fellow commuters, the next hour would be torture or drooling nap time, but for Ahmad, the editorial director at Akashic Books, it was a precious opportunity to focus on his twin passions without interruption: reading and editing. On this Friday morning, he was making a first pass through the manuscript of a debut novel that had landed on the Akashic slush pile. Husband and wife parted ways at Grand Central—Carothers works for a nonprofit in downtown Manhattan, and Ahmad boarded a subway for Brooklyn. Another precious 45 minutes of reading. By 8 a.m. he was settled at his desk in the Akashic office, a largish room in a repurposed American Can factory, hard by that network of toxic sludge known as the Gowanus Canal. It was time for Ahmad to change hats. For the next eight hours, art would take a back seat to commerce. First, of course, there was the endless river of emails to wade through, which today yielded a pleasant surprise: two Akashic titles had been named finalists for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Awards, which honor writers of color. That merited a full-throated blast on social media. There were also licensing contracts from publishers in Poland and Turkey, a translator’s contract to finalize, overdue invoices to chase down, promotional contacts to consider for the upcoming addition to Akashic’s eclectic, globe-spanning noir series: 90 titles that range from Atlanta Noir to Zagreb Noir. Coming this summer is Baghdad Noir, which has a special place in Ahmad’s heart because he has been nursing this new collection of Iraqi crime fiction toward publication for nearly a decade. There were no scheduled meetings on this particular Friday, but on other weekdays there are regular staff meetings to discuss current and imminent releases, editorial meetings to talk over recent submissions and map out the publishing calendar, and a monthly marketing meeting to plot publicity campaigns. Everyone on the small staff was busy—it’s not the sort of shop where people hang out talking about the World Cup or their weekend at the Hamptons. When a reporter showed up to interview him, Ahmad happily fixed coffees and repaired to the comfortable chairs in the corner of the office. A person can answer only so many emails without taking a break. Surrounded by floor-to-ceiling shelves that contain every book published by Akashic in its 21-year history, Ahmad talked, in rapid-fire bursts, about the perils, challenges and rewards of being a small independent in a publishing world dominated by a handful of conglomerates on the other side of the East River. In 2013, book publishing’s Big Six became the Big Five when the giants Penguin and Random House merged. Akashic’s answer to this trend is spelled out on the cover of its current catalog: “Reverse-gentrification of the literary world.” That philosophy is amplified on the catalog’s first page: “Akashic Books is an award-winning independent company dedicated to publishing literary fiction and political nonfiction by authors who are either ignored by the mainstream, or who have no interest in working within the ever-consolidating ranks of the major corporate publishers.” As he sipped his coffee, Ahmad was thinking less grandiose thoughts. “Day to day in the office,” he said, “most of us are working to keep a small business running. Most of what we do is trying to get attention for our books. Should I call NPR for this title? The Wall Street Journal? I have to be thoughtful and selective, but the onus is on us to make sure we’re covering all the bases. The goal is to get the broadest coverage possible, but we have unique marketing plans tailored to every book. The noir series has overt markets, and they’re a great way for us to promote literature in translation that’s underrepresented. Right now for Baghdad Noir, for example, I’m putting together a list of Middle Eastern Studies departments at universities.” This task was a natural one for Ahmad, the son a Pakistani father and Iranian mother who was born in England, moved to Washington, D.C., at the age of 5, then attended the University of Chicago, where he studied Near Eastern Languages. He already had contacts in mind, some forged during his college years, who might help promote Baghdad Noir. As Ahmad spoke, the two summer interns, Rachel Page and Abigail Schott-Rosenfield, were doing the glamorous work of putting review copies in envelopes, taping them shut, affixing address labels. Susannah Lawrence and Alice Wertheimer were at their desks, working to expand the mailing list of reviewers, librarians, and booksellers. Impossible to say for sure what Johanna Ingalls, the foreign rights editor, was doing because she works out of her home in Ireland. Aaron Petrovich, the production manager, was at his computer noodling with layouts and cover art for a new children’s book, Party: A Mystery, by Jamaica Kincaid, with illustrations by Ricardo Cortés. Watching them work, Ahmad observed, “One of the distinguishing characteristics of Akashic is our stability as a staff. Our publisher Johnny Temple, Johanna, Aaron and I have all been here for upwards of 15 years. Susannah and Alice started out as interns. That’s so rare. One of the biggest challenges of independent publishing is keeping people for the long term and getting them invested in the company’s vision.” That cohesion and dedication go a long way toward explaining how a small staff can produce 40 quality books a year. Just then the door opened and in walked Johnny Temple, Akashic’s publisher and co-founder, dressed in a Brooklyn Book Festival T-shirt, an event he helped establish a dozen years ago. Settling into one of the comfortable chairs, Temple ticked off three things—“irreverence, an attraction to dark themes, a passion for social justice”—that shape Akashic’s aesthetic and set it apart from the Big Five. He added that, growing up in Washington, D.C., he was attracted to African-American authors, including Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin. Black writers, both from the U.S. and the Caribbean, remain a staple at Akashic, as do first novels and music-infused books. “We’re doing similar work [to the Big Five],” Temple went on, “but our values are different. With global corporations, it’s all about the bottom line. In the arts, you struggle to find a balance that doesn’t let culture get sublimated to the dollar bill. We want to make money, but I think the big corporations are out of whack. Most novels only sell a few thousand copies, and at a big house those writers wind up feeling like a failure. One of the advantages we have is that given our low overhead, it’s much easier for us to have a success. The money our authors earn is the money the book earns. It’s not a gambling model. We don’t throw things against the wall and hope something sticks.” Yet Akashic has enjoyed some major successes—artistic and financial. The house’s very first release in 1997, The Fuck-Up, Arthur Nersesian’s grungy picaresque novel set on the Lower East Side in the early 1980s, went through three printings. Other solid sellers include Amiri Baraka’s story collection Tales of the Out & the Gone, Nina Revoyr’s novel Southland, and Joe Meno’s punk novel Hairstyles of the Damned. But no Akashic title can touch the sales of Adam Mansbach’s twisted sympathy card to the exhausted parents of young children, Go the Fuck to Sleep. The book became a No. 1 New York Times bestseller in 2011, and promoting it consumed Ahmad’s life for two years. It’s still the house’s top perennial moneymaker, and the steady income gives the Akashic staff the breathing room to experiment and take chances. It also helps fund the fun stuff—annual trips by staffers to book festivals and conventions, including the Calabash International Literary Festival in Jamaica, the Bocas Lit Fest in Trinidad, the Winter Institute gathering of indie booksellers, and of course, the Brooklyn Book Festival. Later, over a leisurely outdoor lunch at a Park Slope café, Ahmad expanded on the business model that sets Akashic apart from other publishers, including many independents. While Akashic author advances are predictably modest—usually under $5,000, rarely more than $10,000—once all project-related expenses are recouped, the author and publisher split profits 50-50, a sharp departure from most publishing contracts. This “profit-split” royalty model was used by Temple’s record label in the 1990s, when he was playing bass with the D.C.-based post-punk band Girls Against Boys (the band still plays occasional gigs). It was then that Temple and Ahmad first met, and soon afterward, Akashic was founded on that music-industry model. Taking the music analogy a step further, Temple said, “Being an independent publisher is like being a deejay spinning the records that people dance to.” “If a book sells more than 5,000 copies,” Ahmad added, “you start to see the profit accelerate. We stay in business simply by selling books.” He made the point that the enduring success of Go the Fuck to Sleep will be forever cherished by the staff, but it was more a happy accident than the point of the enterprise. Walking back to the office, Ahmad appeared to be feeling the effects of his post-lunch double espresso. “I have the best fucking job in the world,” he said. “I can do whatever I want, and I’m accountable only to my authors and the people in that office. That’s what it means to be an independent publisher—you’re free to make your own decisions.” He was ready to spend the rest of the afternoon dealing with the commerce end of the business—emails and contracts and authors and publicity. Then it would be back on the subway with that manuscript from the slush pile, back on the Metro North train, and home to Cheever country, where Ahmad would spend the evening and the weekend doing what he loves most, reading and editing. Then, at precisely 4:45 on Monday morning, Leonard Cohen’s voice would start bubbling out of Ahmad’s alarm clock, and another long day in the life of an independent publisher would begin.
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1. He walked into the room, leaning hard on a cane, and hung his leather jacket on the back of his chair. He was big at the middle; buttons on his sweater vest hung tough across his belly, and he wore a T-shirt under his vest, which I thought was funny. He pulled a stack of papers from his briefcase and flapped it on the table in front of him, taking one copy then sliding the stack to his left. We all took a copy. It was a one-sided photocopied syllabus that looked like it was originally punched on a typewriter. He looked down at the sheet in front of him; white tufts of hair surrounded his dome like a Julius Caesar wreath. He cleared his throat. “Hi, I’m John Goulet. You can call me John.” He recited this and the following syllabus like he had a thousand times. His voice was dynamic—calm sometimes, gravelly or squeaky. The entire syllabus covered just one side of the page. It was a schedule, a reading list and a warning not to be late. He wouldn't be posting online or spending much time on email. The objective of the class was simple: for the students to read and talk about stories, to put words down on the page and to ask questions. He had rules: Don’t talk about movies or television, and don’t say, “This isn't really my thing, but...” Which made sense to me. The stories we workshopped were rarely anyone’s “thing.” John was funny. His hands and face were always chapped. He wore a mustache under a round nose and glasses that made his eyes small. Every so often he would pull his glasses off and polish the lenses on his shirt but continue talking, effortlessly, like he was repeating lines from a play he’d acted a thousand times but still loved. At the end of class, John said, “OK. Tear off half a sheet. It doesn't even have to be half a sheet! Write something about yourself, what you’d like me to know about you.” It was a raw time. I had an infant son named Theodor and had just finished a two-year stint at the U.S. Cellular store downtown. On that day in the classroom, it had been two years since I stepped foot in Curtain Hall, a cement building, too brutal for brutalism, a couple blocks from Lake Michigan on the UWM campus. I had dropped out of school twice already. I couldn't quit again. At 29 years old, I had to make something work. I was a part of things in Milwaukee. I played in a band. I directed music videos and my film, Heavy Hands, had premiered the year before at the Raindance Film Festival in London. After Theodor was born, things changed. I lost touch with a lot of old friends (which I didn't understand), and my band kicked me out (which I did). So on the first day of school, I was just returning to the world. I felt far from my goals and alien. I wrote: My name is Sean. I have a baby son. I’ve been away. I’m excited to be here. 2. Workshop is funny. You don’t know what is helpful or what anyone is saying much of the time, but you read the story, say some things, and try to work it out. Some of us talked; some of us showed off; some of us missed the point entirely. John nodded along like he had a million times before, sometimes holding his cane over his lap, sometimes drinking coffee. At the end of critique John would hold the story in front of him and look on it like it was a photo. “Well, we have some interesting characters. The fire at the beginning is captivating, but some of us were wondering if the metaphor really worked by the end. Overall, some really nice imagery—grammar is a fixable problem. Would the writer like to say a few words?” The previously anonymous writer would step in. We would all nod, and John would tell us what we needed for the next week, satisfaction in his voice that we learned something. Then he’d say, “OK. Thank you, everyone.” We’d leave: to the bus, to the union Burger King, to another class in another building, to the library, to our houses just off campus. John would walk slowly to the elevator, pushing on his cane, then across the windy parking lot where he would lower himself into his car. 3. Twice a semester, John held conferences in his office on one of the top floors of Curtain Hall. It was a nice office. Carpeted with full bookshelves. It wasn't like other offices, where books slid onto the floor, where wastebaskets overflowed with paper coffee cups, where The Far Side comics were crookedly tacked to the wall. It was simple and clean with two long picture windows overlooking Downer Avenue, the long grey of the lake and the wall of bursting yellow, orange, and red trees that stood between the two. It was the most beautiful view. Cars moved down the street, students across the sidewalk. I had lived in Milwaukee for 10 years and never imagined a life that peaceful. During most conferences, I would remark on the view and, for a few moments, space out, hungover or exhausted because I stayed out late with my friends from the restaurant, or because I got up early with my son—usually both. I had stopped working at the cellphone store and got a job waiting tables, but I felt more trapped than ever. Bills were stacking up. I was unreasonably annoyed by my girlfriend, Heather, and son. I had plans before any of this happened: Alaska, Colombia, Colorado, Argentina—somewhere! But I couldn't do that now! Now I was just some dope in a classroom, and any chance I had was gone; I had accidentally kicked it off a cliff! What was going to happen— “Sean, are you OK?” John asked. “Yes.” I looked back from the window. “OK. I was saying your story is good. It's funny. The main character is compelling and believable. Have you ever thought about applying to grad school?” “Um, yeah. I was kind of taking it one day at a time.” “OK. There are some good ones out there. I went to Iowa 40 years ago. I don’t know anyone there now, but I think that’s a very good program. You don’t want to go just anywhere. But I could write a letter for you.” One of John’s books, Oh’s Profit, was behind a glass case next to the elevator on the fourth floor. The copy was old and the cover was fading. Other works by other faculty members were in the glass case, too, much newer, like they could have been placed yesterday. “I think you have what it takes, but who knows,” John said. I had been thinking of going to grad school. I thought the book I was working on, a first-person narrative about a new father working in a cellphone store in Milwaukee and suffering from apocalyptic dreams, had some legs. “I’ll think about it.” John had a way of casually motivating me. I would leave those meetings feeling lifted and head to the cafeteria for a popcorn-chicken wrap before taking the bus home. 4. I crammed out a draft of the book in the year we worked together, and when I emailed John over the summer, he said he was being forced/forcing himself into retirement. He explained it in his usual noncommittal, nonvindictive way. “Well, they don’t have a spot for me this semester. I was only teaching the one night class as it was, and I don’t know how much longer I want to do that anyway.” Heather got a day job, so I watched Theodor all day. In the summer when I didn't have class, I would walk for hours with him in the stroller. Sometimes I sang to him so he would nap; sometimes we would go to the library or ice cream parlor. In the grass at Humboldt park, he would toddle on the hill in grass-stained overalls, long blond hair tumbling on the wind. Theodor would laugh and fall. I would give him crackers and juice and listen to Stephen King books on tape or podcasts about Charles Manson. Most days I didn't talk to anyone. Unless John bought me lunch at Harry’s on Oakland. Then, sometimes, I’d tell him about my family, how I was laying off booze. Sometimes, I’d tell him I was having another child, and we’d drink bourbon. John would laugh, wearing short-sleeved breezy button ups. The front windows on the restaurant open. Sometimes, he was the best friend I had. John paid me to do a read on his new novel, a captivating but messy noir about a private detective in New Haven. I figured the job was more about helping me out, but he seemed genuinely pleased with my thorough notes. We would talk about teaching. He told me that teaching made his life better, though he hadn't planned to do it very long. He met friends through teaching. “Like you,” he’d gesture, which always made me feel good. A couple times, he told me how when he taught James Joyce; he’d say, “You know I love Joyce and I’ve taught Joyce a hundred times over the years. That’s not half bad.” He was how I imagined old writers to be, and as our friendship grew, I found myself trying to mimic his attitudes, his occasional defeatism, only to have him wave me off, stating: that I was a nut job, that I had my whole life ahead of me, my whole career ahead of me, and I should get on with it. [millions_ad] 5. Once, I brought my family to his house for dinner. He also invited another writer, another former student, Chris Fink, and his family. We sat on the back patio area, and John’s wife Susan got us drinks while we talked about school, writing, and we stayed a long while like that. Theodor and Chris’s daughter playing in the yard. John and Susan told us about Susan’s granddaughter, who they would talk to on Skype. Chris was John’s student in the ’90s and John told me I would like him and his work, and I did. They talked about people from the old days. I think they were wilder back then, more drinking, more carrying on. I imagined, in the days after the dinner, what those classes were like. John sitting at the head of the table in the same room in Curtain. Who else had John taught? Who else remembered him? 6. Before he was really sick, I visited John in a hospital room. He emailed me the day before my visit and asked me to bring a handle of bourbon, which I ignored. John was in rehab after a knee surgery. I brought my equipment to record his story, “The Drowning Bear.” The story was from a collection John was trying to have published, so far without luck, and was about a man coming across a bear that had fallen through the ice. The man thinks he recognizes the bear from his dreams years ago. I held a microphone just under John’s chin as he read the story propped up in his hospital bed. He read the story perfectly by the third take. If people just listened to this story and how he read it, I thought, his collection would be published, no problem. We talked for a while, and he read the new intro to his novel out loud. I gave him some pages I was working on. This was what we had. We were writers. We were friends. “Did you bring the bourbon?” “No. I did not. It’s important to me you live. But it’s more important that I’m not the one that kills you,” I said. 7. Three years after I met John, I moved to New York City with Heather, Theodor, and a new baby, Sawyer. I emailed with John; we stayed in touch. Then, for a couple months, I didn't hear from him. I emailed to see how he was doing, how the newest draft of his noir was going. A few weeks later he responded. John had stage 4 throat cancer and a few months to live. He asked me to do another pass on his book. I said, “Yes, of course.” We talked on the phone and he sounded good, in better spirits than I expected. “They are going to try this chemotherapy. The doctor says it will be a miracle if it works. So I guess that’s what I have going for me.” “Fuck, that sucks.” “Yeah, it’s crummy.” We both laughed. What could we say? John sent presents for my kids on Christmas. 8. The last time I talked to John, he sounded faint, far off and beaten. I was driving an old mail van full of restaurant supplies from Bushwick to Park Slope for work. It was dark and cold as the old van beat down broken streets, side to side. The van smelled like gasoline. I had one earphone bud in, and though John’s voice was weak, he was right there in my ear. “It’s not what you want to be doing. You want your life, your freedom,” John said. I felt like he was warning me not to die. There were no jokes this time. “If it means anything, I’ll make sure your book is right.” “I want that. I want you to do that.” We both hung up, and I knew that was it. 9. I sent John an email and got a reply from his wife. John is no longer responsive, the email said. I talk to his son on the phone; John is in hospice, out of consciousness much of the time, he said. It won’t be long. I checked the internet for an obituary. I wished a dumb wish—that he would turn it around. I saw him, skinny probably, his throat invaded, his body invaded by a sickness that seemingly takes us all. I wished he wasn't dying. Even when I accepted he was dying, I thought there was time. I never believed it would come. We always assume the world will wait for us. We look forward to our best moment, when we’ll really see someone and share something. We’re unaware that our best moments have already happened: former students and teacher sharing drinks, recording stories at a rehab center, Reubens at Harry’s, talking in an office with a beautiful view. Now that John is gone, I know how sweet that moment really was, watching the wind twirl tops of Autumn trees from his window, lost in a fretful daydream about fatherhood, about the unexpected turn my life had taken, as John tried to tell me something. John Goulet was the author of two novels and many short stories. He attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and taught creative writing at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee.
If there’s one thing I have learned about summer reading, it’s that it should have no boundaries. Everything can be a beach read: Leo Tolstoy, John Grisham, Roland Barthes, Karl Ove Knausgaard, even massive presidential biographies if you are a grandpa or my 26-year-old brother. If you’re like me, every book that you have missed out on during the rest of the year becomes fodder for an ambitious—and somewhat behind-the-times—summer reading list. And speaking of behind-the-times, it is perhaps unsurprising that my favorite book so far this summer was Ali Smith’s Winter. Released in January 2018, Winter is the second novel in Smith’s seasonal quartet, following Autumn. Both Autumn and Winter are lyrical and political, something akin to a modernist experiment: a pastiche of texts, news, fiction. I devoured Autumn in one sitting, sprawled in morning light on my parents’ porch (with my laptop nearby to look up pictures of Pauline Boty’s work). Winter, on the other hand, took me several lazy days of beach vacation to finish. There was something especially delightful about a book that was so cognitively dissonant with my surroundings, an unseasonal reading: to read about a dysfunctional family Christmas in frozen Cornwall while sweaty and sunscreen-y on a beach, floating around a pool on a doughnut-shaped raft, or indoors waiting for aloe to soak into sunburns. This is of course apropos of Winter and its concern for global warming, its ending grimace at Donald Trump’s summer speech at the Boy Scout Jamboree in West Virginia: “In the middle of summer, it’s winter. White Christmas. God help us, every one.” Winter—and Autumn—remind the reader of the reality of climate change, the way the seasons slide into each other with less variegation than years past. From Autumn, “The days are unexpectedly mild. It doesn’t feel that far from summer, not really, if it weren’t for the underbite of the day, the lacy creep of the dark and the damp at its edges, the plants calm in the folding themselves away, the beads of the condensation on the webstrings hung between things.” Unseasonal reading has some of this awareness, that soon summer will bleed into all seasons, that heat is building, melting. [millions_ad] But along with the weather, what’s been unseasonal about my reading this summer is my lack of focus. Usually I read about a book a day in the summer, but this year I’ve been lucky to make it through one a week. Although I have read more than last year already (at 43 books at the time of writing and certainly slated to defend my title of reading the most books/pages this year in my annual contest with my dad), there’s something different about my reading lately. I put books down to nap, or to research some coastal town’s wild horse population, or to see friends. All good things, of course, but I find myself perplexed by my slowness. Has my attention span shortened from using a phone too often? Am I overcommitted? Do I have more plans than years before? Should I visit Assateague? But when I’m not berating my lack of focus, my unseasonal summer reading reminds me of a favorite phrase from Roland Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text: He writes that “what I enjoy in a narrative is not directly its content or even its structure, but rather the abrasions I impose on the fine surface: I read on, I skip, I look up, I dip in again.” This “dipping in again” reminds me of reading Winter: a passage or two at a time, looking up, getting a drink, putting the book down to dip in the water, picking it up again. I was interrupted and unfocused. But Winter demanded to be read slowly, with frequent breaks for swimming and naps—and perhaps, if I can liken myself to Barthes, these abrasions on such a fine surface are what I enjoyed most about it. My favorite lines in Winter remind, “That’s what winter is: an exercise in remembering how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again. An exercise in adapting yourself to whatever frozen or molten state it brings you.” If that is winter, it looks an awful lot like my summer—an exercise in adaptation, in stillness that will spring to action, hopefully before too long. Image: Flickr/Thomas Sturm
“You do not do, you do not do / Any more, black shoe…” The poet’s voice is strong, piercing. Her tone arch, sly. A few lines later, as she proclaims, “Daddy, I have had to kill you,” she sounds like she’s about to burble into a mean, delicious laugh. The poem is Sylvia Plath’s patricidal “Daddy” and the voice her own, recorded for the BBC in October 1962, less than five months before her death at age 30. That day, she read aloud more than a dozen of the poems that would help make up Ariel, the posthumous collection that would make her name, as she herself foretold. Writing about these same recordings in the New York Review of Books in 1971, Elizabeth Hardwick describes how “taken aback” she was by them. “Clearly, perfectly, staring you down,” she writes, describing Plath’s delivery. “She seemed to be standing at a banquet like Timon, crying, ‘Uncover, dogs, and lap!’” I still remember my surprise at hearing these recordings on my tinny cassette recorder in my freshman dorm room more than 25 years ago. I suppose I expected something more ethereal, a doomy Ophelia floating down the river. There was, instead, something ferocious about them. First, it unsettled me; then it excited me. Like many women, I saw myself in Plath: a diligent, high-achieving young woman, a striver privately bristling against social conventions and punishing gender roles. (“A living doll, everywhere you look,” she writes in “The Applicant.” “It can sew, it can cook…will you marry it, marry it, marry it?”) But Plath more than bristled; she burned. In so many of her poems and in her mordant, acid-tongued novel The Bell Jar, you can feel the rage rippling off the pages. Growing up in the Midwest in the 1980s, I was a hard worker, a straight-A student, a people-pleaser, disciplined and dutiful. A Tracy Flick without the swagger. But when I first read “Daddy,” its incantational rhythm, its audacious analogies (the speaker likens herself to a concentration camp victim, her father to a Nazi, her husband to a vampire), it unleashed something inside me. I wanted to write like that. Bold, risk-taking, confrontational. “The work of a mad woman on fire”: That’s how my creative writing professor charitably classified the deeply derivative poems I wrote under Plath’s spell. But it didn’t matter that they were derivative. What mattered was that I—this well-behaved, compliant young woman—was writing from deeper, darker places, reservoirs of anger and frustration I’d always denied were there. Even back then, it felt to me like Plath was writing from this secret, shared subterranean place—a place where girls and women let loose all their “unacceptable” feelings: bald ambition, aggression, frustration, resentment, rage. But now, in 2018, that place no longer feels so subterranean. “The anger window is open,” Rebecca Traister wrote last November. “For decades, centuries, it was closed: Something bad happened to you, you shoved it down, you maybe told someone but probably didn’t get much satisfaction—emotional or practical—from the confession.” In the aftermath of the 2016 campaign, the inauguration, the Harvey Weinstein scandal and everything that’s followed, it’s impossible to shake the feeling that the lid’s been torn off. The subterranean is no longer subterranean. Instead, it’s terra not-so-firma. Everything’s different now. There’s always been a drumbeat of disapproval of Plath’s work, and it often comes down to: She’s just too much. A 1966 Time review of Ariel refers to “Daddy” as that “strange and terrible poem” Plath composed during her “last sick slide toward suicide,” adding that its style is as “brutal as a truncheon.” M.L. Rosenthal’s 1965 review of Ariel in The Spectator finds several of the poems “hard to penetrate in their morbid secretiveness” and puzzles uncomfortably over the way they seem to “make a weirdly incantatory black magic against unspecified persons and situations.” Years later, in the New Criterion, Bruce Bawer would refer to Plath’s “shrill, deranged” voice in the Ariel poems. She’s too much, too loud, too hysterical; she’s taking up too much space. It’s fascinating to read this criticism today, when political and cultural rhetoric runs searingly hot, when the standards for hyperbole have dramatically shifted, and when charges of female shrillness resonate more deeply than ever. That’s why I’ve found myself returning to Plath so much in the last two years. Her recordings became the de facto soundtrack to my latest novel, Give Me Your Hand, begun in the early stages of the 2016 presidential campaign and completed just after the inauguration. It’s the story of three brilliant, ambitious women seeking a cure for premenstrual dysphoric disorder, otherwise known as “extreme PMS.” There was something deeply unsettling about trying to bring to life the creeping misogyny within the male-dominated world of scientific research as the headlines blared. One day, it was candidate Donald Trump dismissing Megyn Kelly’s pointed questions by seemingly referencing her menstrual period; the next, it was “Grab them by the pussy.” Amid the cries of “Lock her up” and “Bern the Witch,” I listened to Plath over and over, but it was different now. Hearing her firm, authoritative voice, I couldn’t help thinking of the incessant criticism of Hillary Clinton’s voice as “shrill” and her laugh a cackle. I imagined what those critics might think of Plath’s voice: ruthless, relentless, witchy. Suddenly, the recordings seemed to take on an even greater strength. They felt bracing, invigorating. They felt like a battle cry. There’s a long tradition of playing connect the dots between Plath’s biography and her writing. I, too, used to indulge in this line of thinking, titillated by the details of Plath’s life: her struggles with depression, her tumultuous marriage to poet Ted Hughes, her suicide. But this approach to her work feels different now too. It’s a way to diminish her writing as “personal” and thus small, even narcissistic. The argument is familiar. It’s the same one that pigeonholes fiction by and about women as “domestic novels” or movies about women as “chick flicks.” But as with those novels and movies, the issues with which Plath wrestles are the ones now consuming us: fear of female ambition, fear of the female body and the female voice, and perhaps most of all, fear of female power. The subterranean space Plath gave voice to for decades has become our daily landscape, and she serves as our sage, our guide. “I know the bottom,” she writes in “Elm.” “I know it with my great tap root: / It is what you fear. / I do not fear it: I have been there.” It’s no surprise, then, that Plath seems more omnipresent than ever: Kirsten Dunst is developing The Bell Jar for the screen, a recent auction of Plath's belongings garnered $551,862, and an exhibit of her belongings at the National Portrait Gallery featured everything from a ribboned ponytail of her to her Girl Scout uniform. But there’s something particularly exhilarating about young women responding to her with the same fervency I did a quarter century ago. As I listened to that cassette of Plath reading, millennial women tattoo The Bell Jar’s “I am I am I am” on their forearms, or fill their Tumblr and Instagram feeds with Plath quotes, excerpts and stanzas transformed into cris de coeur. The hands-down favorite is from “Lady Lazarus.” “Beware,” the speaker warns. “Out of the ash I rise with my red hair and I eat men like air.” Lately, whenever I talk with a young woman about Plath or teach “Daddy” to undergrads, I think about the first critique of Plath I ever heard. It was a movie scene: a man visiting a woman’s apartment for the first time plucks a copy of Ariel from her book shelf. “Interesting poetess,” he says, “whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the college-girl mentality.” The woman fumbles shyly and replies, self-effacingly, “Oh, yeah, right. I don’t know. Some of her poems seem neat.” Watching this exchange, I felt the burn of recognition. Because at the time, I was that “college girl” in thrall to Plath. I’m a cliché, I thought. But on a deeper level, I felt dismissed, diminished. The movie, of course, was Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. Now, when I watch that scene—the man’s casual dismissal, the woman’s abashed response, the laughter in the audience—it looks so different. Everything looks different now. Image: Flickr/summonedbyfells
Once, I had to go to the hospital. There was no reason to be afraid. The procedure was, at least for the doctors, routine. The chance of death was slim to none. Driving on the highway, for instance, just to arrive at the medical complex, had incurred about the same risk of serious injury. It was a pretty, sunny day in July. The doors were massive glass, revolving at a slow speed. I approached them willingly, but right before crossing through, I hesitated, overcome by sudden fear: I had the feeling that once I went into the hospital, I wouldn’t come out again. I did—happily. Though it's likely others who entered that day never would. That isn’t surprising. It’s very common to die in a hospital, so much so that the place has absorbed into itself the roles and artistic possibilities of the death-bed room, the graveyard, the pastoral house of worship. The religious leaders who once stood at the threshold between life and death are often replaced by a nurse, a doctor—caring, attentive, or sardonic, who knows?—hovering over a solitary patient and presiding over the mystery. When the narrator of Ahmed Bouanani’s incantatory novel reaches the gates of the unnamed hospital, he experiences no immediate sense of foreboding, though the unforgettable and haunting first lines make it clear that he has strolled into the end of his life: When I walked through the large iron gate of the hospital, I must have still been alive. At least that’s what I believed since I could smell on my skin the scents of a city that I would never see again. Casually, he adds his name to a “yellow sheet already covered with flyspecks” and says “thank you four or five times to heads nodding behind screens in tiny, enclosed spaces where decades of paperwork and x-ray films were piling up on dusty shelves.” He follows a nurse deeper through the halls to C Wing, a place where time has seemingly come to a standstill, where the outside world ceases to matter, and where illness is a perpetual state, with no instances of or real hope for recovery. The patient—suffering from an unnamed illness—becomes trapped in a bewildering twilight between life and death. The hospital is a haunted shadow world where memory struggles for a breath of air, where the grotesque facts of the outside country are gone over at leisure. Indignities and past sufferings (long-ago familial deaths, a childhood friend left asleep under a streetlamp, the violent and petty offenses of self-proclaimed criminals) are felt again, perhaps made worse by the removal: the ability to sit and think over events with no further possibility of investigation, action, or intervention. [millions_ad] Stasis is the rule here—for character and reader both. In The Hospital, there is no emphasis on the “and then…” of traditional narrative. There is no real story—which might sound like a critique but in fact is a kind of writing that can be just as cogent and enjoyable as the other, more plot-based or emotionally arcing sort, when the bursts of dialogue, bits of mordant wisdom, and small occurrences are done as well as they are done here. (Praise must go in part to Lara Vergnaud’s eloquent translation.) Take, for instance, the shadows of hunched patients like Easter Island giants, the mind like a “wild horse imprisoned in a serene body,” or this portrayal of pervasive mortality: I rub shoulders with death every day now, that’s why I no longer fear him. I see him in my companions’ eyes, dressed like them in squalid blue pajamas, smoking crappy tobacco like everyone else, shooting the shit while waiting for dusk. He doesn’t hide in the dark corners, behind low walls, under beds, in humid, stinking latrines, he joins us at the dinner table, he laughs when we laugh, he shares our madness, then he leads us to our beds the same way you’d lead a mischievous child who refuses to go to sleep. In some respects, Bouanani’s character is not unlike Thomas Mann’s Hans Castorp (who, in The Magic Mountain, enters a sanatorium intending a three-week visit and stays for seven years) for the slow and imagistic ways he lives beside his own death, and in a place where health is the ostensible but seemingly impossible aim. The character also shares with Castorp a richness in metaphoric layering, for he, Bouanani’s patient, is not only an accentuation of the mortal human but also a specific representative of his country at a very particular moment. As Anna Della Subin’s introduction helpfully describes, Bouanani (who died in 2011) was writing during a politically fraught time in Morocco, when, in an overzealous attempt to erase a legacy of colonization, artists like Bouanani were subjected to extreme censorship and threats. He was criticized for writing in French, forced to work under the watchful eye of the government, and fated to make films that were often immediately banned. As if that wasn’t enough, he also composed while struggling against an international culture that, in his view, demeaned the history of Arabic storytelling. The hospital, then, becomes not only a state of mortal purgatory but also the intellectual and economic purgatory of a stuck generation. “Are we really a people?” asks one withered patient, known only by his nickname, Fartface. “Think about it. We were born with our right hands outstretched, begging in our blood…Too much servitude has made us forget what dignity, generosity, and tolerance truly are.” Another character’s self-description sounds doubly of metaphysical plight, and the shared providence of Morocco’s lost age of artists and thinkers: I’m in between jobs, sir. Like everyone. My life is temporary, my hopes are temporary, my sleep and my dreams are temporary. I am temporarily counting a lot on the future, and here, look, sir, I have a temporary work certificate for when I’ll be temporarily well. Not everything in Bouanani’s novel is so strikingly clear. There are flights of fancy and symbolic reaches in The Hospital (for instance, the hospital’s lush interior garden, the characters living and not living who haunt the patient, one with an axe) that carry vague and fairly muted meanings. Still, the central conceit of Bouanani’s novel is powerful and lucid, and the trim novel leaves a lasting impression. You enter the hospital; you lose yourself in its labyrinth, its rhythms, its silence like “the silence of a jar.” Sometimes you re-emerge and sometimes you don’t (“The world doesn’t care,” writes Bouanani, with bite, “but your mother does”). In the end, though, the difference was always overpronounced: You were just as mortal outside the hospital as inside, just as trapped. The mysteries that exist in the hospital—that peculiar factory where the living often become the dead—exist just as much beyond the iron gates. All true. All seemingly obvious. But often it takes an author like Bouanani to tap our arm and lead the way into an intense reminder.
The first time I hold a gun I am 3 years old. We are visiting my father’s business partner. My dad is getting into strawberries, which means he’s getting into the drugs he can hide in the strawberry truck. In the living room, I slip my chubby 3-year-old hand between the cushions of the brown furry couch and pull out the gun. It’s heavy, but not cold, in my hand. I turn around and squeal, “Treasure!” “Bring it to me, Sara,” my mother’s steady voice requests. And I do. I don’t throw the loaded gun. I don’t fire it accidentally. I toddle over and hand it gently to my mother. It’s the story I tell about the gun that keeps this memory with me. A story about my mother saving me. Now, I am the mother of an almost 5-year-old boy. We’re navigating the issue of violence. I drop my son off at 8:30 a.m., punching in a four-digit code at the gate of his school and then another four-digit code at the main door. I get a voicemail in the afternoon, a computer telling me there is a hoax school shooting threat against the school district. The robotic voicemail says it’s a part of a series of internet hoaxes. How will I save him if I’m not there? How do I talk to my son about these possibilities, even if they seem improbable? The American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends parents avoid discussing mass shootings with young children until they are around 8. What should I tell my son now? When I read articles about how to talk to children about guns, I repeatedly encounter the phrase “the new normal.” The new normal is preparing your family for an active shooter situation. The new normal is not “stop, drop, and roll” but “run, hide, and fight.” My son only understands these concepts as dramatic play. At the playground, an older boy has a green plastic AR-15 he points at his playmates. He spins in a circle on the wood chips, chanting pop-pop-pop-pop. The younger boys gawk in awe. My son wants to touch it. My father carried his gun with intention when he and my uncle walked into a grocery store during the ’80s, armed, faces covered, ready to take everything they wanted. Will this boy become the teenager who trades his plastic toy for live weapons? Will he just play video games? Where is the line between pretending and life, between playing and violence? The gun I played with as a teenager was real. I’m 14, in the Mojave Desert standing next to the boy I want to impress. The sun burns my skin. I’m holding a barely cold can of Natural Ice. I push the can down into the dirt as more boys gather around behind me. Half-drunk and laughing, they don’t wear shirts. They have tan, muscled stomachs they won’t get to keep. We’re all slathered in dirt. “It’ll have a kickback,” he tells me, and I take the shotgun confidently to show that I know what this means. Kickback. I’m shooting at nothing, pointing at the vast sand beyond the four-wheeler. I pull the trigger. “Hah!” Laughter shoots from his body as the shotgun forces itself, hard, into mine, punching me in the chest. The boys erupt. I’m now not just the girl someone might hook up with when we get wasted. I’m the girl who fired the gun. The girl with the bruises all over her chest. I pick up the beer and drink it, holding the gun with my other hand. As parents, we’re the last generation to remember a childhood before school shootings. I graduated high school in 1999, the same year Columbine began this new era. Emma Gonzalez and the Peace Warriors from Chicago are my heroes. They’re teenagers. Their stories, their accomplishments are the books I want to read to my son, the media I want him to watch, the lunch pail I want him to carry. His heroes are the Rescue Bots, Star Wars Jedis, and Ninjago. We could so easily get guns. We felt so cool playing with them, drinking cheap beer in the desert. How dangerous that this kind of gunplay seems innocent now. After finding a gun in the couch at 3 and firing one at 14, I’m now trying to teach my son not to point a finger gun: “I’m only shooting the bad guys, Mommy.” Who are the bad guys? Why are they bad? My son is already a potential fighter, a potential soldier, trying to cope with sophisticated male expectations of violence through play. “Why did you bite her?” “I wanted the bike.” “Do you think there was maybe a better way to get a turn, a way where you don’t hurt your friend?” His face reddens as he whimpers, “Yes. But I already had a turn. I wanted to keep my turn.” His intentions are so clear. The preschooler’s lack of self-awareness gives my son such direct access to the reasons for his actions, but it also makes it challenging for him to regulate his impulses. If I bit someone in front me in line at the DMV because I wanted their turn, I might get arrested. It would take me so long to psychologically suss out why I committed such a spontaneous act of violence. But my son can say it. He knows why he bites his friends. My son’s gunplay is pretend. Mine was real. My dad’s. I am standing here facing the media, the toys, the lunch pails with heroes wielding guns, sabers, and swords, standing here with the responsibility to make sure my son is a peaceful person. It’s easy to feel outnumbered, exhausted, and unsure. In those moments of uncertainty, it’s easy to want a shortcut to intention, to a certainty that I’m parenting for peace and respect for all persons. I’m not the toddler pulling the gun from the couch or the girl drinking in the desert; I’m a mother parenting in the age of the active shooter. I can’t guarantee my son’s safety or be certain of who he will grow up to be, but I do know the code to the school gate, to the building door. I’m trying to teach him to put down the finger gun. Dropping my son off at his classroom door each morning I ask him, “What’s today going to be?” and each morning he replies, “ A great day, Mommy.” Image: Flickr/
1. Kurt Vonnegut’s caution against the use of semicolons is one of the most famous and canonical pieces of writing advice, an admonition that has become, so to speak, one of The Rules. More on these rules later, but first the infamous quote in question: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college.” To begin with the lowest-hanging fruit here—fruit that is actually scattered rotting on the ground—the “transvestite hermaphrodite” bit has not aged well. The quote also, it seems, may have been taken out of context, as it is followed by several more sentences of puzzlingly offensive facetiousness, discussed here. That said, I also have no idea what it means. My best guess is that he means semicolons perform no function that could not be performed by other punctuation, namely commas and periods. This obviously isn’t true—semicolons, like most punctuation, increase the range of tone and inflection at a writer’s disposal. Inasmuch as it’s strictly true that you can make do with commas, the same argument that could be made of commas themselves in favor of the even unfussier ur-mark, the period. But that is a bleak thought experiment unless you are such a fan of Ray Carver that you would like everyone to write like him. Finally, regarding the college part, two things: First, semicolon usage seems like an exceedingly low bar to set for pretentiousness. What else might have demonstrated elitism in Vonnegut’s mind? Wearing slacks? Eating fish? Second, in an era of illiterate racist YouTube comments, to worry about semicolons seeming overly sophisticated would be splitting a hair that no longer exists. But however serious Vonnegut was being, the idea that semicolons should be avoided has been fully absorbed into popular writing culture. It is an idea pervasive enough that I have had students in my writing classes ask about it: How do I feel about semicolons? They’d heard somewhere (as an aside, the paradoxical mark of any maxim’s influence and reach is anonymity, the loss of the original source) that they shouldn’t use them. To paraphrase Edwin Starr, semicolons—and rules about semicolons—what are they good for? As we know, semicolons connect two independent clauses without a conjunction. I personally tend to use em dashes in many of these spots, but only when there is some degree of causality, with the clause after the em typically elaborating in some way on the clause before it, idiosyncratic wonkery I discussed in this essay. Semicolons are useful when two thoughts are related, independent yet interdependent, and more or less equally weighted. They could exist as discrete sentences, and yet something would be lost if they were, an important cognitive rhythm. Consider this example by William James: I sit at the table after dinner and find myself from time to time taking nuts or raisins out of the dish and eating them. My dinner properly is over, and in the heat of the conversation I am hardly aware of what I do; but the perception of the fruit, and the fleeting notion that I may eat it, seem fatally to bring the act about. The semicolon is crucial here in getting the thought across. Prose of the highest order is mimetic, emulating the narrator or main character’s speech and thought patterns. The semicolon conveys James’s mild bewilderment at the interconnection of act (eating the raisins) and thought (awareness he may eat the raisins) with a delicacy that would be lost with a period, and even a comma—a comma would create a deceptively smooth cognitive flow, and we would lose the arresting pause in which we can imagine James realizing he is eating, and realizing that somehow an awareness of this undergirds the act. An em dash might be used—it would convey the right pause—but again, ems convey a bit of causality that would be almost antithetical to the sentence’s meaning. The perception follows temporally, but not logically. In fact, James is saying he doesn’t quite understand how these two modes of awareness coexist. Or consider Jane Austen’s lavish use of the semicolon in this, the magnificent opening sentence of Persuasion: Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs changed naturally into pity and contempt as he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century; and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed. Periods could be ably used here, but they would not quite capture the drone of Elliot’s stultifying vanity. Again, form follows function, and the function here is to characterize the arrogantly dull mental landscape of a man who finds comprehensive literary solace in the baronetage. More than that, the semicolons also suggest the comic agony of being trapped in a room with him—they model the experience of listening to a self-regarding monologue that never quite ends. We hardly need to hear him speak to imagine his pompous tone when he does. The semicolon’s high water usage mark, as shown here, was the mid-18th to mid-/late 19th centuries. This is hardly surprising, given the style of writing during this era: long, elaborately filigreed sentences in a stylistic tradition that runs from Jonathan Swift to the James brothers, a style that can feel needlessly ornate to modern readers. Among other virtues (or demerits, depending on your taste in prose), semicolons are useful for keeping a sentence going. Reflecting on the meaning of whiteness in Moby Dick, Melville keeps the balls in the air for 467 words; Proust manages 958 in Volume 4 of Remembrance of Things Past during an extended, controversial rumination on homosexuality and Judaism. There is a dual effect in these examples and others like them of obscuring meaning in the process of accreting it, simultaneously characterizing and satirizing the boundaries of human knowledge—a sensible formal tactic during an era when the boundaries of human knowledge were expanding like a child’s balloon. Stylistically, the latter half of the 20th century (and the 21st) has seen a general shift toward shorter sentences. This seems understandable on two fronts. First—and this is total conjecture—MFA writing programs came to the cultural fore in the 1970s and over the last few decades have exerted an increasing influence on literary culture. I am far from an MFA hater, but the workshop method does often tend to privilege an economy of storytelling and prose, and whether the relationship is causal or merely correlational, over the last few decades a smooth, professionalized, and unextravagant style has been elevated to a kind of unconscious ideal. This style is reflexively praised by critics: “taut, spare prose” is practically a cliche unto itself. Additionally, personal communication through the 20th century to today has been marked by increasing brevity. Emails supplant letters, texts supplant emails, and emojis supplant texts. It stands to reason that literary writing style and the grammar it favors would, to a degree, reflect modes of popular, nonliterary writing. Beyond grammatical writing trends, though, semicolons are a tool often used, as exemplified in the Austen and James examples, to capture irony and very subtle shades of narrative meaning and intent. It might be argued that as our culture has become somewhat less interested in the deep excavations of personality found in psychological realism—and the delicate irony it requires—the semicolon has become less useful. Another interesting (though possibly meaningless) chart from Vox displays the trend via some famous authors. As fiction has moved from fine-grained realism into postmodern satire and memoir, has the need for this kind of fine-grained linguistic tool diminished in tandem? Maybe. In any case, I have an affection for the semi, in all its slightly outmoded glory. The orthographical literalism of having a period on top of a comma is, in itself, charming. It is the penny-farthing of punctuation—a goofy antique that still works, still conveys. 2. A larger question Vonnegut’s anti-semicolonism brings up might be: Do we need rules, or Rules, at all? We seem to need grammatical rules, although what seem to be elemental grammatical rules are likely Vonnegutian in provenance and more mutable than they seem. For instance, as gender norms have become more nuanced, people—myself included—have relaxed on the subject of the indeterminately sexed “they” as a singular pronoun. Likewise, the rule I learned in elementary school about not ending sentences with prepositions. Turns out there’s no special reason for this, and rigid adherence to the rule gives you a limited palette to work with (not a palette with which to work). We know, on some level, that writing rules are there to be broken at our pleasure, to be used in the service of writing effectively, and yet writing is such a difficult task that we instinctively hew to any advice that sounds authoritative, cling to it like shipwrecked sailors on pieces of rotten driftwood. Some other famous saws that come to mind: Henry James: “Tell a dream, lose a reader.” Elmore Leonard: “Never open a book with weather.” John Steinbeck: “If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.” Annie Dillard: “Do not hoard what seems good for a later place.” Stephen King: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” And more Kurt Vonnegut: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water”; “Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action”; “Start as close to the end as possible.” In the end, of course, writing is a solitary pursuit, and for both good and ill no one is looking over your shoulder. As I tell my students, the only real writing rule is essentially Aleister Crowley’s Godelian-paradoxical “Do what thou wilt, that shall be the whole of the law.” Or alternately, abide by the words of Eudora Welty: “One can no more say, ‘To write stay home,’ than one can say, ‘To write leave home.’ It is the writing that makes its own rules and conditions for each person.” Image: Flickr/DaveBleasdale